Jesus hangs out with some sinners. Mark 2:13-17. Five stories of conflict

The literary structure of Mark 2:13-17

We’re in the Gospel of Mark today, looking at the call of Levi and the subsequent meal in his home. This is the second in a sequence of five stories of conflict. Last time the conflict was over Jesus’ claim to forgive someone’s sins. Today it’s his practice of sharing fellowship with sinners.

Let’s jump right in –

Mark 2:13-17

v. 13- “He (Jesus) went out again beside the sea, and all the crowd was coming to him, and he was teaching them.”

As we have seen, Jesus was a celebrity, especially because of his ability to heal. Crowds followed him everywhere. He was always getting mobbed. And so here he takes advantage of this to continue to teach them about the coming of the kingdom of God (1:15).

v. 14 – “And as he passed by, he saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth. . .”

[Notice the parallels with 1:16-20, the calling of Peter, Andrew, James and John: Jesus took the initiative, he was “passing by”; it took place beside the sea; Jesus saw; there is a reference to occupation; the call “follow me”; and an immediate response of leaving their occupation]

It’s interesting that in the first gospel the name of the person in this story is “Matthew,” not Levi. And there’s also a James the son of Alphaeus, who is one of the twelve. Most likely Levi and Matthew are the same person. And perhaps Levi/Matthew and the apostle James, the son of Alphaeus were brothers. It’s hard to know how it all fits together with the information we have.

In any case, Levi was a tax collector (technically a toll collector). Specifically he would have been employed by someone to collect customs fees and road tolls. He most likely had a booth along the road through Capernaum, which was a significant trade route (the Via Maris from Damascus to Caesarea). The money would go to his boss, who would give the proper portion to Herod Antipas, who ruled in Galilee.

Tax collectors were despised and treated as outcasts, for several reasons. I’ll mention just two. First, they were seen as collaborators with Rome, Israel’s oppressive overlord, since they worked for Herod, Rome’s installed puppet leader. And also they were often dishonest and charged too much, to increase their own income. They are associated in the New Testament with prostitutes (Matthew 21:32), extortionists, the unjust, adulterers (Luke 18:11) and Gentiles (Matthew 18:17). None of these kept the Law of Moses and all of them were classified as “sinners.”

So Jesus sees Levi sitting at his toll booth, doing his work.

v. 14 – “. . . and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he rose and followed him.”

When he says, follow me, Jesus is asking Levi to leave his current life behind so that he can travel with Jesus, learn from him and minister with him, just as he has already done with Peter, Andrew, James and John.

It’s possible that Levi had previous interactions with Jesus. Peter did before his call from Jesus, even though Mark doesn’t tell us about them. So it’s possible. Either way, Levi makes a radical break. He leaves his career behind. We will see in a moment that he had a house. But one can also wonder, was he married? Did he have kids? Was he supporting his parents? Whatever his exact circumstances, he had to sacrifice to follow Jesus in this way.

v. 15 – “And as he reclined at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners were reclining with Jesus and his disciples, for there were many who followed him.”

[Jesus is a bit like David here collecting outcasts to himself – 1 Samuel 22:2].

The references “he” and “his” in the first phrase are vague. But it’s best to say that Jesus is eating in Levi’s house (Luke 5:29). Usually you would sit to eat. It was only for a special meal or banquet (Luke 5:29) that you would you recline, that is, lay on cushions or a couch and eat off of a short table.

“Sinners,” as we saw,  is a broad term that covers Gentiles and also Jews who don’t keep the Law of Moses in significant ways. Maybe they aren’t even trying. It’s a lifestyle of sin.

What’s going on here is that Levi, now a committed worker for Jesus, has invited his friends and coworkers, fellow tax collectors and sinners, to meet with Jesus, and to hear his message of the kingdom.

Many tax collectors and sinners were interested in Jesus and many “followed him,” our verse tells us, perhaps in the crowds that followed Jesus around, or perhaps as repentant disciples. (As Jesus said to the Jewish leaders in Matthew 21:31, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you.”)

And Jesus freely joins in with them in this feast.

v. 16 – “And the scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, ‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?’”

The scribes of the Pharisees, or experts in the Law, want to see what’s going on. A meal like this would’ve been public knowledge in a small town like Capernaum. And they aren’t happy with what they see. They ask Jesus’ disciples, “What in the world is he doing?”

That’s because the Pharisees took a separation approach to sinners. The righteous must be separate from those that are morally or ritually unclean. And the walls of separation must be maintained. And they especially applied this to who you ate meals with.

To be with sinners (especially to eat with them) is to send the wrong message; one of condoning their disobedience to God. And in ancient cultures to eat a meal with someone did convey open fellowship with each other.

And then there is the concern that if you are with them you will be contaminated by them, through ritual impurity for sure, but also by means of bad moral influence.

Perhaps they even said, “if sinners want to repent, they know what to do according to the Law of Moses. Let them get their lives in order first. Then we’ll fellowship.”

So Jesus’ actions were disconcerting and threatening to their way of looking at things. He isn’t playing by their rules.

v. 17 – “And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.’”

Jesus uses a common proverb to make his point: What good is a doctor who never goes around a sick person? Of course doctors have to be with them. How else can they help them? In the same way Jesus has come to call sinners to repentance and kingdom entrance; he calls them to be made whole. This is precisely why Jesus came. God sent him to do this.

Now, when Jesus says, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” he acknowledges that there is a difference between a person who seeks to follow God and when they fail, finds forgiveness and moves forward – and a person who isn’t even trying to follow God; sinners who live a lifestyle of sin. And Jesus speaks of those who are righteous (Mark 6:20; Matthew 10:41; 13:17; 13:43; 25:37; Luke 1:6; 2:25; 23:50).

But we also have to acknowledge that with the coming of Jesus even these relatively more righteous ones are called to repentance in light of the fuller revelation of God’s will that he brings. (Just as those with faith in God are called to have faith in Jesus and his bringing forth the promise of the kingdom.) (This saying is similar to Luke 15:7, given in a very similar context, “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine who need no repentance.”) (The Pharisees saw themselves as righteous – Luke 18:9, but Jesus often pointed out the ways that at least some of them failed in this regard.)

Instead of a separation approach, Jesus took a redemptive approach to sinnersYou have to be with them to give them the message of new life. Yes, this can seem scandalous because people might think that you’re condoning sin, or even sinning yourself. But the point is to be able to share the message of the kingdom and repentance and forgiveness and new life. So it’s worth the risk.

Instead of sin contaminating him, Jesus saw his love and truth as able to transform them; to make them well. Righteousness is contagious, not sin. Yes, you risk ritual impurity, and you do have to be careful of moral influence if it’s an area of weakness for you. But other than this, it’s worth the risk.

It’s no wonder that so many people responded to Jesus. They were used to rejection and scorn. And this didn’t lead to their transformation. But now Jesus comes to them, and he comes with grace – “I know you’re sinners, even notorious ones, but God is offering you the kingdom too. Repent and you can enter in and have new life.”

Let’s end with –

Some questions

 How do you treat sinners? Are you more like the Pharisees or more like Jesus? Here’s a test: There was a Christian man who went to biker bars so that he could be with those who needed Jesus. God put them on his heart. He sought to befriend those he could, to show them the love of Jesus. But when others in church found out about it they were shocked! John goes to bars every Friday night! We’ve never heard of such a thing. What’s he thinking? That’s not a place for good Christians to hang out. He should be thinking about his witness!

Do you agree with John or those in his church? Whose concern for witness is more genuine – John’s actual witness to people or the church’s concern for mere reputation?

Jesus calls us to be with sinners, not stay away from them. Unless, of course you have a weakness, that particular people or circumstances might tempt you to give in to. Short of this we are called to be with them, not just to hang out with each other, the “well” ones; those that we are comfortable with in the church building. We are to be with them so that we can share with them about Jesus, his love and his grace.

And this is not just about outside the church. Sinners should be welcome in our church. Do people have to clean up their lives before they come to church? No! Church is the place they need to be, to be able to get clean and be transformed by Jesus.

Do you introduce your friends to Jesus? Levi’s an excellent example. He immediately invited everyone he knew to a banquet so that they could meet Jesus and hear his message. In what ways might you connect your friends and co-workers to Jesus?

Are you struggling with sin? Are you stuck in a lifestyle of sin? If this describes you, Jesus comes to you today and he comes with love and grace. He comes to offer you new life; a new start; forgiveness. He comes to you as the good physician to make you well.

What must you do? Receive his grace. Be like Levi, repent of your sins and give yourself fully, radically and sacrificially to follow Jesus. This is the path to wholeness. I encourage you, respond to Jesus today.

What water baptism means

Series on baptism

We are continuing on in our series on baptism this morning.

We know that baptism is important:

  • It was crucial for John the Baptist. Matthew 3:6 says, “They were baptized by John in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.” This was the proper response to his prophetic ministry.
  • Jesus used the symbol of baptism. A little later in time, John 4:1-2 notes, “. . . Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John (although Jesus himself did not baptize, but only his disciples).”
  • Jesus commissioned his disciples, including us, to baptize. He said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit . . .” – Matthew 28:18-20.

But where does water baptism come from? And what does it mean? The answer is found in the water crossings that we looked at last time, and especially the Red Sea crossing. This is where it comes from, and this is how to understand what this symbolic water experience means.

From last week:

Slide2

You have a handout from last week – Passing through the waters chart  that summarizes the meaning of “the waters,” various water crossings and the five themes of water crossings and how water baptism fits with these ideas.

Today, I want to show you three ways that the New Testament makes this connection clear. So let’s dive in!

1. In the New Testament baptism is linked to these water crossings

The Flood is called a type of water baptism. 1 Peter 3:20-21 says,  “. . . eight persons, were brought safely through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you.” The word corresponds refers to an event that points forward to something in the future which is its counterpart. Another way to say it is that the flood gives us background and context for understanding what Christian water baptism is about.

The Red Sea crossing is called a baptism. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:1-2 – “ . . . our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.” So here we have baptism language describing the Red sea crossing. Not only is it called a baptism, in the context of 1 Corinthians 10 it is used as an analogy to Christian baptism. These two things are alike.

So from these examples we can see that there’s a connection between water baptism and passing through the waters. Indeed, water baptism is a passing through the waters.

2. In the New Testament there is a historical connection with the Red Sea crossing

Remember that after the Israelites crossed through the Red Sea they went on to fail in their commitment to God in the wilderness. So, that generation of Israelites never went into the promised land. Thus when Joshua entered the promised land with the next generation they crossed through “the waters” again; through the Jordan river. The waters upstream were stopped and they walked through it on dry ground (Joshua 3).

This was a reenactment of the Red Sea crossing. God was symbolically reconstituting Israel after their failure in the wilderness. And then, low and behold John the Baptist comes baptizing people in the Jordan river! The symbolism is there to be seen. Like Joshua, John is calling for Israel to be reconstituted, to be made new. What I’m saying is that John was reenacting Joshua’s reenactment of the Red Sea crossing.

All we need to do, then, is recognize that Jesus continued John’s baptismal practices and we have an unbroken chain back to the Red Sea crossing:

  • Moses and the Red Sea
  • Joshua and the Jordan river
  • John the Baptist and the Jordan river
  • Jesus and Christian baptism

 Finally –

3. In the New Testament the five themes line up

 That is to say, the symbolism of Christian water baptism in the New Testament matches the five themes of water crossings that we looked at in the Old Testament.

  • The waters represent Satan, judgment, slavery to Sin and Death. These powers keep us away from God and seek to destroy us.
  • But God has intervened. Through Jesus God delivers us from Satan, judgment, slavery to sin and death. Because of what God has done, we are able to cross through to the other side.

1. When we come to the waters of baptism, we symbolically portray that we are leaving behind our old life through repentance. Our sinful past in the world is behind us now. This is our commitment.

As Peter says on the day of Pentecost, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ . . .” Acts 2:38. Repentance means that we have a change of heart and mind so that we practice God’s will now. And repentance and baptism go together.

Here’s another way of saying it. Baptism portrays our death to sin – Romans 6:2-3. “How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” This is another way of talking about “repentance” – our old life in sin has come to an end; it’s dead.

2. When we go through the waters of baptism we symbolically portray that we are set free and forgiven. All the powers of evil can’t touch us anymore because our sins are forgiven. They have no claim on us. That’s why we can go through the waters safely to the other side.

In a baptism context Paul talks about how we are set free from Sin & Death, which are personified as powers, who enslave us and seek to destroy us – Romans 6:7

Once again, Peter says, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” – Acts 2:38. There is a connection between baptism and forgiveness.

3. As we come up out of the water on “the other shore,” as it were, we symbolically portray that we receive new life through the Spirit.

Baptism is associated with receiving the Spirit. After Peter’s invitation to baptism he says, “and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” – Acts 2:38. Also, water baptism is connected to our receiving “newness of life” in Romans 6:1-4. I’ll say more about this later when we look at Spirit baptism.

4. When we come up out of the waters we symbolically portray that we are now a part of God’s people. We have switched communities and allegiances. We have left the world and we are now a part of the church.

This is the communal component of baptism. This is usually just assumed in the New Testament, but it does come out in several places. Luke says, “So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.” Acts 2:41. These were added to the fellowship of believers, not just a spiritual, invisible reality but the actual, visible church of Jerusalem. They became a part of that congregation.

Paul says, “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free. . .” –    1 Corinthians 12:13. Baptism incorporates us into a new community – the church.

5. When we come up out of the waters we symbolically portray that we commit to follow Jesus. We commit to a new way of life; to doing God’s will from now on just as Jesus has taught us.

Jesus talks about, “ . . . baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” – Matthew 28:19-20. Baptism is connected here to obedience to everything that Jesus teaches.

Peter calls baptism a “pledge of a good conscience toward God” in 1 Peter 3:21. This is covenental language, speaking to a commitment to do God’s will from now on.

 Slide3

I hope you can see in all this that baptism is rich in symbolic meaning and that it has to do with every part of beginning the Christian life. And anyone who comes to be baptized needs to understand what this all means and what they are saying when they go through it.

Let me end with a challenge. If there are any here who are not baptized this is an invitation to you. Is this what’s in your heart? If it is, I encourage you to seek this out as a public witness to your faith in Jesus. And I would be glad to talk to you.

And for those of us who are baptized, I ask, “Are you living out what water baptism means?” Maybe you did when you were baptized, but are you now? Make sure your life now lines up with what your baptism proclaimed.

For all of us, the world calls us to accept its symbols, its story, its values. But Jesus calls us to accept his symbols, his story, his values and to live out the reality of this before an ever watching world. Will you heed Jesus’ call this morning?

The last straw: Saul is rejected as king. 1 Samuel 15:10-35

The literary structure of 1 Samuel 15:10-35

We’re coming to the end of our series on 1 Samuel, at least for now. We’ve been looking at Saul’s downfall, and since we haven’t gone over this since the beginning of October, I think a bit of review is in order.

We saw how –

Saul’s core weakness is fear

This was his main temptation and struggle. In chapter 10 after God gave him three providential signs and the Holy Spirit came upon him, out of fear, he hesitated to attack the Philistines. Also, in chapter 10 he was afraid of being chosen as king, so he hid in the baggage when the lots were drawn.

His fear eventually led him to outright disobedience to God. In chapter 13, because he was afraid that the Philistines would attack quickly, he didn’t obey God and wait for Samuel to come before the battle. He offered up his own offering to God. If God was merciful before, here he is judged. He will not have a dynasty. After him, his kingdom will be over.

Saul continued to walk in foolishness (13:13), doing what he thought was right, regardless of God’s will – making his army swear a foolish oath and nearly killing his son Jonathan because of this foolish oath.

And today we reach the breaking point, when out of fear, once again, he disobeys explicit instructions from God. We saw last time how God commanded Saul to devote to destruction the Amalekites and how he did this, except that he left king Agag alive, and the best of the livestock.

So God sends the prophet Samuel to confront him – and it’s an epic confrontation.

1 Samuel 15:10-35

Samuel finds Saul

10The word of the Lord came to Samuel: 11“I regret that I have made Saul king, for he has turned back from following me and has not performed my commandments.” And Samuel was angry, and he cried to the Lord all night.

Regret can be translated “change your mind,” although this doesn’t really fit here. God had set up the terms for Saul to be king and these included him being obedient (12:14-15). So, God is just recognizing that Saul has broken these conditions and judgment is about to happen. And God is sad about this. (God’s regret here echoes Genesis 6:6 regarding the creation of humanity, just before the judgment of the flood.)

God is saying, ‘he just won’t do what I tell him to do.’ He does what he thinks is right based on the circumstances and his fears.

Samuel was upset also. He invested a lot in Saul and was genuinely rooting for him.

12And Samuel rose early to meet Saul in the morning. And it was told Samuel, “Saul came to Carmel, and behold, he set up a monument for himself and turned and passed on and went down to Gilgal.”

Setting up such monuments was common among ancient kings. Saul certainly seems set on exalting himself for the victory. (The Carmel here is not the mountain in the North but a small town in Judah. Gilgal is the site of their last confrontation.)

The confrontation: part one

13And Samuel came to Saul, and Saul said to him, “Blessed be you to the Lord. I have performed the commandment of the Lord.”

If Samuel and God are unhappy, Saul is pretty happy with himself. He seems to really think that he’s obeyed God, even though he hasn’t. Is he self-deceived?

Samuel points out the obvious –

14And Samuel said, “What then is this bleating of the sheep in my ears and the lowing of the oxen that I hear?”

There was to be no livestock left; no plunder. All Samuel had to do was listen, to know that Saul didn’t listen to God (Bruce Birch).

Saul then deflects and rationalizes –

15Saul said, “They have brought them from the Amalekites, for the people spared the best of the sheep and of the oxen to sacrifice to the Lord your God, and the rest we have devoted to destruction.”

His deflection is saying that the people did it (not him). It’s the soldiers’ fault, if there is any. And he rationalizes that these are for sacrifice, which is a good thing, right? Even though God told him to destroy them all and take no plunder. And note – even if they are sacrificed, Saul and the men would get some of the food (Tsumura)

16Then Samuel said to Saul, “Stop! I will tell you what the Lord said to me this night.” And he said to him, “Speak.” 17And Samuel said, “Though you are little in your own eyes, are you not the head of the tribes of Israel? The Lord anointed you king over Israel. 18And the Lord sent you on a mission and said, ‘Go, devote to destruction the sinners, the Amalekites, and fight against them until they are consumed.’ 19Why then did you not obey the voice of the Lord? Why did you pounce on the spoil and do what was evil in the sight of the Lord?”

Stop deflecting. You are in charge of “the people.” You were given the mission. You are responsible. And stop rationalizing. You pounced on the spoil, you did what was evil in God’s sight. When, in a similar context Achan took spoil from Jericho, he was killed for it.

Saul goes on to insist he was obedient, even while undermining his defense . . .

20And Saul said to Samuel, “I have obeyed the voice of the Lord. I have gone on the mission on which the Lord sent me. I have brought Agag the king of Amalek, and I have devoted the Amalekites to destruction. 21But the people took of the spoil, sheep and oxen, the best of the things devoted to destruction, to sacrifice to the Lord your God in Gilgal.”

Now we learn that the king, Agag was spared – probably as a trophy of war, which is another evidence, along with the monument, to Saul’s pride. And he continues to deflect and rationalize. The people did it. It was for sacrifice.

Then Samuel destroys his pretense with what has become one of the most well-known OT passages –

22And Samuel said, “Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams. 23For rebellion is as the sin of divination, and presumption is as the evil of idolatry (italics NIV).”

Sacrifice is good, but obedience is better. And besides what good is sacrifice if it comes from a disobedient heart? God is not interested in mere outward ritual, but with a heart of love for him that is expressed in obedience.

  • Saul has rebelled. He willfully refused to do what God said, which is a rejection of God similar to divination.
  • And he has presumed to do what he thought was right, instead of God’s will, which is a rejection of God similar to the evil of idolatry.

This is no little matter. These are capital crimes. And because of this he is judged.

“Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, he has also rejected you from being king.”

He may continue on in the role, but not under God’s blessing.

The confrontation: part two

With his pretense shattered, Saul fesses up.

24Saul said to Samuel, “I have sinned, for I have transgressed the commandment of the Lord and your words, because I feared the people and obeyed their voice.

He went from insisting, “I have obeyed” to “I have not obeyed.” And he even confesses why – he feared the people. (The conditions for his kingship were that he was to fear God and obey his voice. Here he feared the people and obeyed their voice – 1 Samuel 12:14.)

25Now therefore, please pardon my sin and return with me that I may bow before the Lord.” 26And Samuel said to Saul, “I will not return with you. For you have rejected the word of the Lord, and the Lord has rejected you from being king over Israel.”

Saul asks for forgiveness, but is it sincere? Saul wants Samuel to come with him for his own reasons. To project that everything is OK. Which is why Samuel refuses. His repentance isn’t right, because he’s using it to get what he wants – his status.

27As Samuel turned to go away, Saul seized the skirt of his robe, and it tore. 28And Samuel said to him, “The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you this day and has given it to a neighbor of yours, who is better than you.”

To grab the hem or skirt of someone’s robe is to take up the position of a supplicant. He wants Samuel to change his mind. But this accidental tearing becomes a metaphor of God’s judgment. The kingdom has been torn from him and given to another, that is, David.

29And also the Glory of Israel will not lie or have regret, for he is not a man, that he should have regret.”

God regrets making Saul king in vs. 11 and 35, but here God doesn’t have regret? (It’s the same Hebrew word). As we saw in v. 11, it is not so much that God changed his mind, as it is that he was sorrowful because Saul broke the conditions of his kingship.

Here Samuel seems to mean that, as opposed to Saul, whose kingship was conditional, David’s kingship will be unconditional. God will not change his mind about choosing David and his line. (2 Samuel 7:15) (See Terrence Fretheim)

30Then he said, “I have sinned; yet honor me now before the elders of my people and before Israel, and return with me, that I may bow before the Lord your God.” 31So Samuel turned back after Saul, and Saul bowed before the Lord.

Here we see more clearly his real motive is not forgiveness. He drops this request. What he really wants is to be honored before the elders. He is interested in his status.

Samuel acquiesces, because Saul finally gets it that he has been rejected and that God will not restore his kingship.

 Conclusion

32Then Samuel said, “Bring here to me Agag the king of the Amalekites.” And Agag came to him cheerfully. Agag said, “Surely the bitterness of death is past.” 33And Samuel said, “As your sword has made women childless, so shall your mother be childless among women.” And Samuel hacked Agag to pieces before the Lord in Gilgal.

Samuel finishes what Saul left incomplete.

34Then Samuel went to Ramah, and Saul went up to his house in Gibeah of Saul. 35And Samuel did not see Saul again until the day of his death . . .

This represents a full break in their relationship. Samuel no longer recognizes him as the rightful king. (And notice throughout this passage Saul’s use of “your” God (vs. 15, 21, 30), which his own recognition that he is alienated from God.)

And then our story ends as it began –

but Samuel grieved over Saul. And the Lord regretted that he had made Saul king over Israel.

Lessons

What do we learn from this. Let me highlight three things.

1. Saul show us how not to respond when we sin. Even when caught in the act, he blamed others, he rationalized his wrong choices, he made excuses and he lied. Even when he confessed, it was to get what he wanted from Samuel.

This is a portrait of the sad state of humanity. And we do these very things ourselves when we are caught in our sin.

The right way to respond to sin is displayed by David, Saul’s replacement. When Nathan the prophet confronted him, he simply said, “I have sinned against the Lord” 2 Samuel 12:15. He confesses with no strings attached. And then he accepted the consequences.

2. God’s patience has an end. And then comes judgment.

God was very patient with Saul. He told Saul ,do what I tell you and your kingdom will be established forever over Israel (13:13). But Saul chose to disobey God’s specific commands over and over. And judgment came.

When we are not obeying God, we ought not test God’s patience with us. Paul tells us in Romans 2:4 that God’s patience and kindness is meant to lead us to repentance. But if we don’t repent, eventually we will be judged.

Are any of us here this morning presuming upon God’s patience?

3. God demands our full obedience.

Saul gave partial obedience. But partial obedience is no different than disobedience. We don’t get to pick and choose which parts of God’s will be put into practice.

And outward expressions of religion will not make up for our disobedience – going to church, saying you are a Christian, feigning respect for God, wearing a cross or a Christian T-shirt.

What delights God is a heart set on loving him, expressed in careful obedience to his Word. Do we keep “the word of the Lord?” Do we obey “the voice of the Lord?”

1. The assurance of God’s word. Series: How can I know I’m saved?

We’re talking about something very practical today and for the next few weeks. How can I know I’m saved? How can you know that you’re saved? It’s a pretty important question.

Can you know for sure that God has forgiven your sins; that you are saved, right here and right now and that you are an heir of God’s eternal blessings? Or are you just hoping for the best?

Is the Christian life one that is characterized by confidence in where you stand with God?Or are we to always be insecure in our relationship with God?

We are talking about the topic of the assurance of our salvation. And let me say that I believe very strongly that you can know, and that you should know. We can have security in Christ.

Now, this doesn’t mean you won’t have occasional times of struggle or doubt. This is a part of a life of faith.

And certainly we are not to have a sense of assurance when we are knowingly and willfully rebelling against God. In the Scriptures, both Old Testament and New, words of assurance are given to those who are walking with God and finding forgiveness when they fail; assurance is given to those whose hearts are set on God, even though it’s hard.

But words of warning and judgment are given to those who choose the path of sin. So beware of false assurance. Beware of those who say, “Peace, peace – when there is no peace” (Jeremiah 6:14). Who say everything is OK, don’t worry – even though you are choosing a lifestyle of sin.

But beyond this, yes, Christians are to be characterized as those who have great confidence and joyful assurance of their standing with God.

  • John says this, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life” – 1 John 5:13. We can know.
  • The writer of Hebrews says, “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” – Hebrews 4:16. We can have confidence in our relationship with God.

So, for the next few weeks, I want us to look at this topic and specifically three interconnected bases for our assurance of salvation. And today we begin with the assurance of God’s word.

And so, first of all, we need to know –

God’s promises or word to us regarding salvation

 Let me summarize these from the preaching found in the book of Acts.

1. God promises to forgive our sins. Peter says in his sermon on the day of Pentecost that God offers “the forgiveness of your sins” – Acts 2:38. Later, he says it this way, “that your sins may be blotted out” – Acts 3:19.

So this is good news! Our sins, which separate us from God and bring us death can be taken away! We can have a fresh start with God, and in life, because of what Jesus has done.

2. God promises to give us the Spirit. Peter speaks of this promise from God to his listeners on the day of Pentecost, when he says, “you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” – Acts 2:38. And we see this gift bestowed in several of the stories in the book of Acts.

  • The Spirit gives us new life: we are born anew, we are a new creation in Christ, we are raised to new life in Christ, we have eternal life.
  • And the Spirit also gives us power to live differently.

So these are God’s promises of salvation to us. But it is also important that we hear God’s word about what is required of us. God’s promises often come with things we must do. And if we don’t meet the conditions, then we are being presumptuous with God’s promises.  Two things stand out here, from the book of Acts:

1. We need faith in Jesus. We need to believe that he is indeed the Messiah, who has brought us God’s salvation. Peter said to Cornelius “everyone who believes in him,” that is, Jesus receives salvation – Acts 10:43. Paul preached “faith in our Lord Jesus Christ” – Acts 20:21.

2. We need to repent. Peter talked about “turning . . . from your wickedness” – Acts 3:26. Paul’s message was, “repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with repentance” – Acts 26:20.

So this is God’s word to us, both promises of salvation and what he asks of us. Now we look at –

How God’s word gives us assurance

 Let’s suppose that you are here today and you don’t have confidence in your relationship with God; you don’t know that you have eternal life. Maybe it’s that you don’t feel saved. Maybe it’s that you are going through some difficult circumstances which make you question where you stand with God. Maybe someone is telling you that you need to do something beyond God’s word to be saved, and it raises doubts for you.

Here’s what you need to do – 1. Hear God’s word, just as you have today. God’ word says that when we come to Jesus in faith and repent of our sins, we will indeed be forgiven our sins and receive new life by the Spirit of God; we will be saved.

Hear God’s word on this, not just in your head, but deep in your heat. Let it come into your heart right now.

2. Agree with God’s word. And this is not just an intellectual thing in your mind. God’s word testifies to us of its truth in our hearts. Agree with this in your heart. As Hebrews 4:12 says, “the word of God is alive and active.” It has a vitality and power to it. And when we receive it in our hearts, it comes alive and God speaks to us through it. God’s word speaks to our hearts with convincing and convicting power. And so we need to agree with this. “Yes, God. Your  word is true.”

What I am really saying is that God’s word creates faith within us, if we choose to agree with it, as God speaks in our hearts. Romans 10:17 says, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.”

How do I know I’m saved? Because I know from God’s word that when I have faith in Jesus and repent of my sins, my sins are forgiven and I have new life and a hope for the future. I accept and agree with what God says about me through his word.

3. Hold fast to God’s word. This means that when we don’t feel saved, or when our circumstances are difficult, or when others say things that don’t agree with God’s word that make us doubt our salvation – it means that we make a choice, and it is a choice, not to live by these feelings, circumstances, or the words of others. We choose to live our life based on God’s word and truth.

Does your assurance seem weak?

Perhaps this is where some are this morning. Well, then keep God’s word in your heart and mind. Read it, study it, meditate on it, confess it, act on it. For it is God’s living word that builds faith within us. And so absorb its powerful testimony and align yourself with it.

Yes, if you focus on your feelings, your circumstances, or what others say – your faith will be weak. But the more you let God’s word into your heart, the more your faith will grow, which means your sense of assurance will grow as well.

And then, finally –

Apply God’s word to any other concerns you might have

 Here are some examples . . .

Do God’s promises apply to me? Jesus said, “whoever comes to me I will never cast out” – John 6:37. Are you coming to Jesus? He will not turn you away. You will be accepted. Paul said, “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” – Romans 10:13. The promise applies to all, including you.

Am I too sinful? Of course you are, that’s the point! But Jesus said, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” – Mark 2:17. Paul said, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners . . ..” – 1 Timothy 1:15. Believe and repent of all your sins and the promises are yours, regardless of your past. 

Will God fail me? Impossible! Paul said, “He who calls you is faithful” – 1 Thessalonians 5:24. This is at the core of God’s identity – faithfulness to his word and promises. As Paul also says, “he remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself” – 2 Timothy 2:13. This is simply who God is.

Let God’s word be the foundation of your assurance with God. Know with confidence where you stand with God, based on what he says! And if you don’t have a relationship with God today I encourage you to hear his word and act on it, even now.

Samuel, Israel’s repentance and God’s deliverance. 1 Samuel 7:3-17

The literary structure of 1 Samuel 4-7

The literary structure of 1 Samuel 7:3-17

We are in 1 Samuel again today, chapter 7 if you would like to turn. We have come now to the concluding story of a set of five stories that began in chapter 4 and most of which have to do with the ark of the covenant.

  • In the first, the ark was taken to the battle of Aphek-Ebenezer, thinking that God would help them if the ark was there, even if they didn’t deal with their sin and unfaithfulness.
  • In the second, the ark was captured and the high priestly family of Eli was judged.
  • In the third, Yahweh took matters into his own hands and defeated the Philistines and their gods by means of the ark until they begged for it to leave.
  • In the fourth, the ark came back to Israel, but the Levites of Beth-shemesh were judged for their disrespect to the ark and so the ark ended up in Kiriath-jearim.

At the very end of this fourth story it says, “a long time passed, some twenty years, and all the house of Israel lamented after the Lord” – 7:2. After judgment on their high priests and Levites, after Philistine oppression year after year, after seeing God’s power displayed through the ark, but not for them – they hit rock bottom. Things were so bad, for so long that they knew something had to change. And so they reconsidered their ways and began to long for the Lord God.

Well, Samuel saw this godly sorrow, which leads us to –

The story of God’s salvation

3And Samuel said to all the house of Israel, “If you are returning to the Lord with all your heart, then put away the foreign gods and the Ashtaroth from among you and direct your heart to the Lord and serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines.” 4So the people of Israel put away the Baals and the Ashtaroth, and they served the Lord only.

baal
Baal

The phrase, “foreign gods” covers a lot of ground, but Baal and his female consort Astarte (Ashtar) here named as Ashtaroth are specifically mentioned. He was the storm god and a god of fertility. She was the god of war, love and fertility. (The name “Ashtaroth” is plural for Ashtoreth, which is a deliberate distortion of her name so that it is to be read as “shame” or “abomination.” The vowels for this word are added to the consonants of her name.)

In these verses we have a beautiful portrait of what repentance looks like. It means turning, or in this case, “returning to the Lord with all your heart.” Negatively this involves putting away idols, those wrong systems of belief and practice that go against God’s will for us and which harm us and others. And positively it means relying on the Lord alone and doing his will.

You have to realize, Israel’s temptation was seldom not to serve Yahweh. Rather, it was to place Yahweh as one of many gods who can be served for their various specialties and help, depending on your particular life crisis or need. So let’s say you want a husband, then you pray to Astarte. This is what she does. And if you want rain you pray to Baal. And then in a national crisis you might pray to Yahweh as a tribal god.

This is why the call is to give God all your heart, not part; and to serve him only, not along with other gods. Samuel is calling Israel to trust God for everything, because he can take care of everything.

We also see here that repentance is something that comes from the heart, or the very center of us – our will; it has to do with a choice of life direction.

What are our idols? I can tell you how to find them. When you are in a crisis what do you turn to for security, help and comfort? Is it wealth, social status, inappropriate sexual expression, drug or alcohol abuse, overeating? It could be anything. What do you turn to? 

Here the repentance is communal, the whole community of Israel is returning to God. How might we need to repent as a community?  Where do we allow sin in our midst as a church?

5Then Samuel said, “Gather all Israel at Mizpah, and I will pray to the Lord for you.” 6So they gathered at Mizpah and drew water and poured it out before the Lord and fasted on that day and said there, “We have sinned against the Lord.” And Samuel judged the people of Israel at Mizpah.

It’s not clear why they poured out water, but it is a part of their repentance, as is the fasting. Notice that confession, and intercession on behalf of Israel by Samuel, was also a part of their repentance and restoration to God. This is most likely a covenant renewal ceremony.

When it says Samuel judged them, it means that he taught them once again God’s will and called them to accountability to practice it, as well as decided difficult cases. (e.g. 1 Samuel 12:23).

7Now when the Philistines heard that the people of Israel had gathered at Mizpah, the lords of the Philistines went up against Israel.

The Philistines still exercised dominance over Israel, so a gathering like this would have been provocative – most likely indicating a rebellion. So they come to reassert their power.

And when the people of Israel heard of it, they were afraid of the Philistines. 8And the people of Israel said to Samuel, “Do not cease to cry out to the Lord our God for us, that he may save us from the hand of the Philistines.”

God allows them to be tested in a big way, right away. Will they remain faithful and trust God to deliver them?

Their call for prayer is the right response. They have put all their eggs in Yahweh’s basket. In a practical way they are fully relying on him.

Do we commit to serve the Lord only and then run back to our old idols? Do we go back to our old life patterns when things are bad? Or do we trust fully in God and God’s promises as we pray? Israel is an example to us here.

9So Samuel took a nursing lamb and offered it as a whole burnt offering to the Lord. And Samuel cried out to the Lord for Israel, and the Lord answered him.

(For Samuel as an intercessor see also Jeremiah 15:1; Psalm 99:6; 1 Samuel 12:19-23)

The story goes on to give the details . . .

10As Samuel was offering up the burnt offering, the Philistines drew near to attack Israel. But the Lord thundered with a mighty sound that day against the Philistines and threw them into confusion, and they were defeated before Israel. 11And the men of Israel went out from Mizpah and pursued the Philistines and struck them, as far as below Beth-car.

God himself fought for them. They only took action after God gave the victory. The Lord’s thunder here shows that Baal, the storm god, who often used thunder, was a pretender – Yahweh is the true God and rules in the heavens. (It is also a partial fulfillment of Hannah’s praise in 2:10).

12Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen and called its name Ebenezer; for he said, “Till now the Lord has helped us.”

Ebenezer means “stone of help.” The idea is that God has helped by saving them. “Till now” means, OK, you have decided to rely only on Yahweh, and see, he has helped us thus far. God is faithful! The stone monument is a reminder to them and later generations of God’s great work here. God can be trusted.

Do we remember how God has worked in our lives? What stones of remembrances do you have that build your faith and the faith of others as you share your testimony of God’s faithfulness? 

Notice how in the first story of this set of stories Israel was defeated under the leadership of Eli, as Israel thought they could win just because the ark was with them, despite their sin and unfaithfulness. And this happened at a town called Ebenezer. But here in the last story, Israel defeats the Philistines under Samuel’s leadership after they have turned wholly to the Lord and this is memorialized by an Ebenezer stone.

13So the Philistines were subdued and did not again enter the territory of Israel. And the hand of the Lord was against the Philistines all the days of Samuel. 14The cities that the Philistines had taken from Israel were restored to Israel, from Ekron to Gath, and Israel delivered their territory from the hand of the Philistines. There was peace also between Israel and the Amorites.

During Samuel’s days as the leader of Israel God gave Israel peace. The Philistines were defeated, Israel’s land was restored and the other Canaanites didn’t bother Israel. This was a gift from God; a blessing that they could receive because of their repentance and trust in God.

Finally, our story ends –

15Samuel judged Israel all the days of his life. 16And he went on a circuit year by year to Bethel, Gilgal, and Mizpah. And he judged Israel in all these places. 17Then he would return to Ramah, for his home was there, and there also he judged Israel. And he built there an altar to the Lord.

Here we have a summary of Samuel’s life work, carried out in the cities of this central region of Israel. There isn’t much detail about what else happened during his time as a judge, but he continues to show up in the stories of Saul and David which come next.

I want to end with a few thoughts on what I think is the chief message of these five stories.

No repentance, no blessing

I’m not saying that all people aren’t blessed by God in some ways, because God gives mercy even to his enemies. What I am saying is that to receive the fullness of God’s blessing – his salvation – we have to repent and trust God.

We have seen Israel try to have it both ways. They want God’s best for them while clinging to their sin and unfaithfulness. They seek after God’s best by pursuing it according to their own wisdom; by doing what they wanted; by not serving God alone.

But here in this story they get it! They turn to God and receive God’s blessing, deliverance and salvation. The title for this sermon could be, “Finally, they get it!!!” This is the way it was always supposed to be. Finally, they put away their sin and experienced all that God wanted for them – life, peace and blessing.

Well, I think, we are just like Israel. We want it both ways. We want God’s best for us, but we want to make our own choices and do things our own way, also relying on our idols. But it doesn’t work that way. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. If we want God’s blessing, deliverance and salvation, like Israel we have to repent and trust God. We have to submit ourselves to God and God’s ways. We have to serve God with our whole heart and him only. There are no shortcuts.

Have you come to this point yet? Where you can say, “I get it! If I give myself fully to God he will bless me and be present with me, even when I go through hard times. I know that because of my repentance and trust, God’s blessing and salvation will always define my life.” Maybe some of you came to this realization 50 years ago. Maybe some of you came to it last year. Or maybe some of you are still on the journey.

Let me just say, you don’t have to hit rock bottom first. It’s a choice you can make at any time. I encourage you today, submit yourself fully to God and trust in him and know his blessings.

Israel hits rock bottom: Judgement on the Levites of Beth-shemesh. 1 Samuel 6:12-7:2

The literary structure of 1 Samuel 6:12-7:2

This morning we come to the fourth of the four ark stories in 1 Samuel. It’s been a little while so let’s remember together:

  • In the first, the ark was taken to the battle of Aphek, thinking that God would help them against the Philistines if the ark was there, even if they didn’t deal with their sin and unfaithfulness.
  • In the second, the ark was captured and the high priestly family of Eli was judged; he and his two sons died.
  • In the third, the ark wreaked havoc on the Philistines and their gods, as Yahweh took matters into his own hands and defeated the Philistines. They begged for it to leave because of the plagues on them.
ark-travels
The journey of the ark of the covenant

Today, we have the story of how the ark came back to Israel.

Remember from last time the Philistine test. They were sure that their plagues were from Yahweh, but just to be doubly sure they said – if the cart with the ark on it went straight to Beth-shemesh, that would be a sign for them.

And they stacked the deck against this happening by having no one lead the cart, by picking two milk cows that had never carried a cart before, and by locking up their calves in the barn so that the cows would have to overcome their instincts not to go to them, but to Beth-shemesh in Israel.

And then our story begins . . .

The ark returns to Israel

12And the cows went straight in the direction of Beth-shemesh along one highway, lowing as they went. They turned neither to the right nor to the left, and the lords of the Philistines went after them as far as the border of Beth-shemesh.

Yahweh takes control of the situation and leads the cows to the right city – even though the cows were lowing for their calves. Now the Philistines know beyond a shadow of a doubt that Yahweh was the one who judged and defeated them, since the Philistine lords are sneaking around to see what  would happen, and saw this.

A cause for celebration

13Now the people of Beth-shemesh were reaping their wheat harvest in the valley. And when they lifted up their eyes and saw the ark, they rejoiced to see it. 14The cart came into the field of Joshua of Beth-shemesh and stopped there. A great stone was there.

This harvest would have been in May or June. And this is why so many people are out in the fields to see this cart with two cows and the ark on it. Can you imagine? The ark of God pulling up next to your field with no one leading it?

And they gave thanks and gave offerings to God.

And they split up the wood of the cart and offered the cows as a burnt offering to the Lord. 15And the Levites took down the ark of the Lord and the box that was beside it, in which were the golden figures, and set them upon the great stone. And the men of Beth-shemesh offered burnt offerings and sacrificed sacrifices on that day to the Lord.

And then the humorous scene of the Philistine lords sneaking around Beth-shemesh comes to an end.

16And when the five lords of the Philistines saw it, they returned that day to Ekron. 17These are the golden tumors that the Philistines returned as a guilt offering to the Lord: one for Ashdod, one for Gaza, one for Ashkelon, one for Gath, one for Ekron, 18and the golden mice, according to the number of all the cities of the Philistines belonging to the five lords, both fortified cities and unwalled villages.

V. 18 goes on . . .

The great stone beside which they set down the ark of the Lord is a witness to this day in the field of Joshua of Beth-shemesh.

The stone is a witness to these amazing events, of how God single-handedly defeated the Philistines and brought the ark back to Israel.

But then disaster strikes. 

 19And he (the Lord) struck some of the men of Beth-shemesh, because they looked upon/into the ark of the Lord. He struck seventy men of them, and the people mourned because the Lord had struck the people with a great blow.

If before they rejoiced about the ark, now they mourn.

According to Numbers 4:15, 20 no one was to touch the ark, and only priests were allowed to look at it. Here it appears that some of the men of Beth-shemesh were looking it over or even looked into it, which would have involved touching it. And so they are judged for failing to obey the Law of Moses.

Now, this might seem harsh but consider this. This was a Levitical town, that is, a place where Levites lived (Joshua 21:16; 1 Chronicles 6:54-59).And not only that, they were from the clan of the Kohathites, which was in charge of transporting the ark and the other holy things of the tabernacle (Numbers 4:4). And they were specifically instructed that the priests must cover the ark, and “after that the sons of Kohath shall come to carry these, but they must not touch the holy things, lest they die” – Numbers 4:15.

So they knew, or certainly should have known that what they were doing was very wrong (For a similar incident see 2 Samuel 6:6-9) (The LXX or Greek Old Testament has an alternative explanation for the judgment. It says, “the descendants of Jeconiah did not rejoice with the people of Beth-shemesh when they greeted the ark of the Lord, and he killed seventy men of them.”) (70, and not 50,070 seems to have been the original number in the text.)

20Then the men of Beth-shemesh said, “Who is able to stand before the Lord, this holy God? And to whom shall he go up away from us?”

Instead of acknowledging their wrong, they blame God, as if God is arbitrary. And then they are like, ‘how do we get rid of this thing?’ And so they look for a new town for the ark.

21So they sent messengers to the inhabitants of Kiriath-jearim, saying, “The Philistines have returned the ark of the Lord. Come down and take it up to you.” 7:1And the men of Kiriath-jearim came and took up the ark of the Lord and brought it to the house of Abinadab on the hill. And they consecrated his son Eleazar to have charge of the ark of the Lord.

As we saw, Kiriath-jearim is 9 miles north of Beth-shemesh. The ark was put in a house, not out in open view. It appears that Eleazar was a priest (it was a common priestly name; 2 Samuel 6:3-4 and 1 Chronicles 13:7-11 portray his brothers as priests), so he could rightly care for the ark.

Then the story ends.

2From the day that the ark was lodged at Kiriath-jearim, a long time passed, some twenty years, and all the house of Israel lamented after the Lord.

Things were just really bad for Israel.

  • Despite God’s punishment of the Philistines, militarily and politically they were still dominating Israel and causing great suffering.
  • There was not a functioning high priestly family to lead the people.
  • The tabernacle at Shiloh was destroyed and things were in disarray.
  • And now the Levites of Beth-shemesh, who were the ones who should have known how to care for the ark are judged. Even when God gave them something to rejoice about, they are so disconnected from God that they also offed God, just as the Philistines had done, and were judged.

And so now the ark is in Kiriath-jearim, with Israel afraid of it and it has been there for twenty years and nothing is changing. And this is where they hit rock bottom. They can’t take it anymore. Something has to change.

And so finally it says, “all the house of Israel lamented after the Lord.” They knew what could be from their history as a people when God blessed them. But they saw where they were and they mourned. This is what Paul calls godly sorrow that leads to repentance (2 Corinthians 7:10).

They moved from blaming God, ‘you didn’t help us at Aphek, you judged us at Beth-shemesh’ to taking responsibility for their sin and unfaithfulness. And this is what we will see in the next story, the whole nation repents and begins to follow the Lord under Samuel’s guidance.

Here’s a question –

Why?

Why as individuals or even as a congregation, do we so often have to hit bottom to come to our senses? Why does it have to get so bad before we make the difficult choices that need to be made to set things right? So that we submit to God and walk in his ways? Why are we so stubborn, or as Scripture sometimes calls it, “stiff necked”?

And finally an exhortation –

Act!

 If this is where you are, or where you are headed (you don’t actually have to hit rock bottom) act! Right now! Act to make things right!

Set aside your sin and unfaithfulness and come back to a right relationship with God and serve him with your whole heart. Stop blaming God or others or life circumstances, and take responsibility for your own choices and repent.

The other shoe drops. Judgment on Eli and his house. 1 Samuel 4:11-22

The literary structure of 1 Samuel 4:11-22

We are continuing on with several stories about the ark of God in 1 Samuel that prepare us for the emergence of Samuel as the prophetic leader of Israel.

As you will remember from earlier in 1 Samuel, God has foretold judgment on the high priest Eli and his two sons – Hophni and Phinehas. They treated the offerings of the Lord with contempt, taking the best portions for themselves. And also his two sons treated the women workers at the tabernacle as prostitutes. 1 Samuel 2:12 says of these two, “They were worthless men. They did not know the Lord.”

And so an unnamed prophet came and told Eli that his house would no longer be the high priestly line – 2:27-33. And that the sign that this will surely happen is that his two sons would die on the same day – 2:34. And then the Lord told Samuel as a boy, “11Behold, I am about to do a thing in Israel at which the two ears of everyone who hears it will tingle. 12On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. 13And I declare to him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them. 14Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be atoned for by sacrifice or offering forever.” – 3:11-14

The title of the sermon is “The other shoe drops.” You know the phrase “waiting for the other shoe to drop” right? It means waiting for something bad to happen. Something bad has happened and something else bad will happen. If these pronouncements of judgment are the first shoe that drops, then waiting for the fulfillment of these words of judgment is the other shoe. And it drops decisively in our text today.

Our story picks up with the fallout of the battle between Israel and the Philistines that we looked at last week, where Israel was severely defeated, even though they brought the ark of the covenant to help them.

Judgment on Eli and his house

4:11And the ark of God was captured, and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, died.

Not only did the use of the ark not bring victory, it was captured by the Philistines. It was under enemy control.

And just as the Lord had said, Hophni and Phinehas died on the same day as a sign to all that Eli and his house were being set aside as the high priestly line in Israel.

12A man of Benjamin ran from the battle line and came to Shiloh the same day, with his clothes torn and with dirt on his head.

So this man ran for some twenty miles from Aphek/Ebenezer to Shiloh, quite a feat. And he comes with torn clothes and dirt on his head as an indicator of mourning for the many who have died.

13When he arrived, Eli was sitting on his seat by the road watching, for his heart trembled for the ark of God.

Eli was devoted to God in his own way. We see this in his teaching Samuel about the Lord and here in his concern for the ark. Despite his sin, he still had this.

And when the man came into the city and told the news, all the city cried out.

As the Lord said to Samuel, God would “do a thing in Israel at which the two ears of everyone who hears it will tingle.” (3:11). And they must have all been stunned to hear the report. They are crying out not just in general, but because many of their own fathers, brothers, husbands and sons were now dead. And their lives may well be in danger, as we will see.

14When Eli heard the sound of the outcry, he said, “What is this uproar?” Then the man hurried and came and told Eli. 15Now Eli was ninety-eight years old and his eyes were set so that he could not see.

So Eli can hear – he hears the city cry out, but he can’t see, which is why he didn’t see the messenger or how he was dressed. He is still wondering what’s going on. So the messenger comes and tells him the report in person.

16And the man said to Eli, “I am he who has come from the battle; I fled from the battle today.” And he said, “How did it go, my son?” 17He who brought the news answered and said, “Israel has fled before the Philistines, and there has also been a great defeat among the people. Your two sons also, Hophni and Phinehas, are dead, and the ark of God has been captured.”

The man tells Eli in ascending order of importance about Israel’s defeat, the death of his two sons and then that the Philistines now have the ark of God.

Eli doesn’t seem that concerned about his sons, for the story continues . . .

18As soon as he mentioned the ark of God, Eli fell over backward from his seat by the side of the gate, and his neck was broken and he died, for the man was old and heavy. He had judged Israel forty years.

His sons are dead and now he dies after hearing the fate of the ark. In a way his own sin is a part of this, for he fell off his chair and broke his neck not only because he was old, but also because he was heavy –perhaps related to his eating the best portions of the Lord’s offerings.

This is the only place that mentions Eli as a judge; he ruled for 40 years. The Hebrew word for “seat” here (and also in v. 13) also means “throne.” So Eli is symbolically dethroned and his reign comes to an end.

19Now his daughter-in-law, the wife of Phinehas, was pregnant, about to give birth. And when she heard the news that the ark of God was captured, and that her father-in-law and her husband were dead, she bowed and gave birth, for her pains came upon her. 20And about the time of her death the women attending her said to her, “Do not be afraid, for you have borne a son.” But she did not answer or pay attention.

The bad news induced her labor. She was so overcome by what happened that she didn’t even care that she had given birth to a son.

21And she named the child Ichabod, saying, “The glory has departed from Israel!” because the ark of God had been captured and because of her father-in-law and her husband. 22And she said, “The glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God has been captured.”

Before she dies, in the naming of her son she gives insight into the situation that is going on in Israel. Ichabod is taken by her to mean “the glory has departed.” This a reference to God, who is the glory of Israel (1 Samuel 15:29). 1) God was not with the Israelite soldiers, even though they brought the ark; 2) the leaders of Israel are now dead – Eli and his sons, including her own husband; 3) but above all else, repeated twice here (5x in whole story) the ark of God is now gone. God has truly abandoned them. What was apparent, even when the ark was present, is made perfectly clear with the capture of the ark. God had already left them because of their sin and unfaithfulness.

In the phrase “the glory has departed,” the word “departed” can also be translated, “has gone into exile.” God has gone into exile in a foreign land. God is absent. Why? Israel’s sin drove God away.

If the pattern later was Israel left the land and went into exile, here God leaves the land in exile. And they become slaves in their own land (1 Samuel 4:9; Psalm 78:62-64). (But also see Ezekiel 10:18 where the glory leaves and the people go into exile.)

Psalm 78:59-61 says of this event, God “utterly rejected Israel. He forsook his dwelling at Shiloh, the tent where he dwelt with people, and delivered his power to captivity.”

And then we have something that is not recorded in this passage, but almost certainly happened at this time –

The destruction of the tabernacle at Shiloh

In Jeremiah 7:12, several centuries later, the Lord says, “Go now to my place that was in Shiloh, where I made my name dwell at first, and see what I did to it because of the evil of my people Israel.” In other words, God is saying to the people of Jerusalem, “you think I won’t judge you because you have the temple in your midst? I’ve don it before! Just as I destroyed the tabernacle in Shiloh, so I will destroy the temple in Jerusalem. (Also 26:6, 9)

And this fits with what we find in 1 Samuel. Shiloh is never again mentioned as a worship center in Israel; the ark is not taken back there when it is recovered from the Philistines later; and Samuel goes back to his home in Ramah as his center of operations. (Bergen. Even Eli’s descendants are later found in the city of Nob.) 

Given this, along with the capture of the ark, this was surely the lowest point for Israel since their time of slavery in Egypt.

What do we learn from all this?

1. Our sin drives God away from our lives, just as we see in this story. In Isaiah 59:2 the Lord says, “your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God.” Our sin creates a barrier or a wall between us and God. And so we have to deal with our sin through confession, repentance and receiving forgiveness from God, so that we can have a relationship with God. This is what Israel failed to do, but this is what the story teaches us. Don’t be like them! Act and make decisive changes so that you can be reconciled with God and experience renewed relationship and help.

2. God keeps his word. Now we like it when God keeps his word to bless us and help us. But God just a surely keeps his word when it comes to judgment and the many warnings that he gives us about walking in sin and unfaithfulness.

In Eli’s case God spoke it through two prophets – and as Scripture says, let everything be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses (Deuteronomy 19:15). And it surely came to pass. And just as surely God will keep his word of judgment if we walk in sin. We may think we are fine because nothing bad has happened yet, so it seems like God doesn’t care or that God won’t act, but the other shoe will drop – whether it is today, tomorrow or on the final day. We will reap what we sow. There are consequences for our unfaithfulness to God. Our sin will find us out. And so this should encourage us all the more to deal with our sin and come back into a right relationship with God.

The futility of lucky charm religion. 1 Samuel 4:1b-10

The literary structure of 1 Samuel 4:1b-10

This morning we are back into our series on 1 Samuel. And today we begin a sequence of four stories that focus on the ark of the covenant, and which don’t even mention Samuel. These stories show Israel’s sad state at this time and God’s judgment on their unfaithfulness. And they also tell how Israel came to a place of repentance that sets up the narration of Samuel’s ministry in chapter 7 and beyond.

Our story today is about a battle between Israel and the Philistines, starting in the last half of v. 1 of chapter 4.

Israel is defeated

1bNow Israel went out to battle against the Philistines. They encamped at Ebenezer, and the Philistines encamped at Aphek. 2The Philistines drew up in line against Israel, and when the battle spread, Israel was defeated before the Philistines, who killed about four thousand men on the field of battle.

The Philistines were settled along the coast in five key cities. They were the archenemies of Israel at this time and were dominating them militarily (some of the Israelites were forced into servitude – 4:9). The battle took place in Aphek about 20 miles north of Philistine territory and about 20 miles west of Shiloh (where the tabernacle/temple was). Israel was encamped at Ebenezer, probably just East of Aphek. Israel suffered a great loss.

3And when the people came to the camp, the elders of Israel said, “Why has the Lord defeated us today before the Philistines?”

When ancient peoples fought, as they saw it, it really involved a fight between the God or gods of the two nations. And so if you lost it meant that your god was defeated, or perhaps it would be interpreted that your god was unhappy with you. And this was certainly the case for Israel’s God, Yahweh – the only true God. The Lord God is all powerful, so he must have allowed this, as the Elders surmised.

So the Elders of Israel come up with a plan.

“Let us bring the ark of the covenant of the Lord here from Shiloh, that it may come among us and save us from the power of our enemies.” 4So the people sent to Shiloh and brought from there the ark of the covenant of the Lord of hosts, who is enthroned on the cherubim. And the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God.

(One is justified in wondering why the Elders didn’t consult Samuel.) The ark of the covenant looked something like this.

ark of the covenantIt was approximately 4x2x2 in size and covered in gold. (Exodus 25:10-22). On the top were two cherubim; angel-like creatures. It served as the visible throne of Israel’s invisible God. He sat, as it were, above the cherubim. As v. 4 says, the Lord, “who is enthroned on the cherubim.” (Also, Jeremiah 316-17; Isaiah 37:16; Psalm 99:1-3) In other places it is also called God’s footstool, which is also throne language (1 Chronicles 28:2; Psalm 99:5; 132:7).

Now it wasn’t necessarily wrong to bring the ark. The ark was used in battle, for instance when Israel defeated the city of Jericho (Joshua 6). And the title for God here, “Lord of hosts,” refers to God as the leader of his armies, both human and angelic.

The problem is that the diagnosis of their defeat is too shallow. In truth God allowed them to be defeated because of their unfaithfulness – which is highlighted here by the mention of “the sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas.” As we have already seen these two sons of Eli the high priest were publicly known, flagrant sinners. And Eli did not stop them from being priests while they broke God’s law.

The proper course of action would have been to seek the Lord and to repent of their sins, thus restoring God’s blessing to their lives. But they didn’t think the problem was with them. They just thought that if the ark came, God would come and help them. As v. 4 says,  “that it (the ark) may come among us and save us from the power of our enemies.”

The story goes on,

5As soon as the ark of the covenant of the Lord came into the camp, all Israel gave a mighty shout, so that the earth resounded (or shook).

Israel has new morale and boldness, because they think that God is now with them. [The shout here and the movement of the earth echoes the story of Jericho – Joshua 6:6-21].

6And when the Philistines heard the noise of the shouting, they said, “What does this great shouting in the camp of the Hebrews mean?”

You can feel their concern rising. And they must have sent some people to check out what was going on, because next it says,

And when they learned that the ark of the Lord had come to the camp, 7the Philistines were afraid, for they said, “A god has come into the camp.” And they said, “Woe to us! For nothing like this has happened before. 8Woe to us! Who can deliver us from the power of these mighty gods? These are the gods who struck the Egyptians with every sort of plague in the wilderness.

Here their fears are on open displayThey don’t quite get the details right – they talk about Israel’s gods and think the plagues took place in the wilderness, but they have heard of how Yahweh’s power struck the Egyptians. And now here is the visible presence of Yahweh, his throne, in the Israelite camp, which must have been quite unusual for the Israelites to do, at least with the Philistines, since they say, “nothing like this has happened before” – v. 7.

They can only say, “Woe to us, woe to us.” This is certainly what the Elders of Israel had wanted, to put fear into their enemies. But then something suddenly changes, because they don’t stay afraid.

9Take courage, and be men, O Philistines, lest you become slaves to the Hebrews as they have been to you; be men and fight.”

After having said “Woe to us” twice, here they rally and call each other to “be men” twice. Instead of giving up, they decide that they need to fight harder than they ever have to overcome such a powerful foe, so that they don’t become the slaves of the Israelites.

And then the story ends,

10So the Philistines fought, and Israel was defeated, and they fled, every man to his home. And there was a very great slaughter, for thirty thousand foot soldiers of Israel fell.

Even though they brought the ark, the Israelites suffered a much worse defeat, more than seven times the losses.

Israel’s problem

The title today is “The futility of lucky charm religion” A lucky charm is something that you think has power to protect you and give you success. In Israel’s time of difficulty – a military defeat – instead of coming to God and repenting and moving into faithfulness, they treated the ark of the covenant as a lucky charm; as an object that would bring God’s power to protect them and give them success. Instead of right relationship with God, they went with a mere object that represents God to bring them the help they needed.

I say “The futility of lucky charm religion,” because we see the results of this – their defeat was increased over seven-fold. 

This just isn’t how a relationship with God works. God and the things of God are not magical. God can’t be manipulated by us. It is God who is important above all else, including the ark that represents him. And right relationship with God is important above all else – and not other things that represent God to us.

Well, there is –

A challenge for us

– in this story. Sometimes we act just like these ancient Israelites. We are not walking in right relationship with God; we are unfaithful to God. And when God disciplines us with hard times for this – instead of dealing with the real issue – our unfaithfulness (hey, the problem can’t be with me!), we look to things that are connected to God and think that these will guarantee that God will take care of us.

  • Perhaps coming to church is a lucky charm for some. You are walking sin, but think, “If I go to church I believe God will take care of me.” Well, going to church is great. But it can’t take the place of repentance and walking in a right relationship with God.
  • Perhaps it’s calling yourself a Christian. You are unfaithful to God, maybe you don’t even have a relationship with God, but you think, “If I identify as a Christian God will take care of me.” Identifying as a Christian is wonderful. But it can’t take the place of having a right relationship with God. Calling yourself a Christian is not a substitute for actually being a real, faithful Christian.
  • Maybe it’s wearing a cross or having a cross or a crucifix on your wall. There is nothing wrong with this. But jewelry or artwork that represents God will not save you in the day of trouble. Only being in a right relationship with God can do this.
  • Maybe it’s your connection to a godly person. You know that you are not walking with God, but if you know someone or have a family member who is godly you think, “God will take care of me too.”

None of these things are wrong, just as it wasn’t wrong to bring the ark. They are wrong only when we make them substitutes for dealing with the core issue of our sin and unfaithfulness. And given our undealt with unfaithfulness, we turn these things into lucky charms which can’t protect us and take care of us.

No, God is patiently waiting for you to turn from your unfaithfulness and come into a right relationship with him through confession of you sins, repentance and finding forgiveness. And then God will make his power and love known to help you and take care of you.

[This is also the message of Jeremiah in chapter 7 to a later generation of Israelites, who thought that God would not judge their sin because they had the temple of the Lord in Jerusalem. Jeremiah refers back to this episode in 1 Samuel. That’s because, as we will see next time, the tabernacle/temple at Shiloh was destroyed, even as the ark was captured by the Philistines. God brings judgment, not salvation when we turn his things into lucky charms.]