Expectation of
Armies and
…when the general loves you and you’ve got an umbrella.

Ready to
Eat your
Emptiness for
…when your father is a billionaire and your mom’s making steak.

Slavery to self and
Tyranny over persons
…when there’s fresh air outside and we’re all in one family.

Rationalizing your
…when the organ isn’t necessary and the surgeon is in.

Father’s fidelity to
Outlandishly show off his
Redemption and to
Gently display the
Irrationality of our
Even as we
Naive young fools
Expect to
Settle a deal
…though the debt’s all been paid and our bank account is brimming.

Judges: when society crumbles

Judges, the biblical book, is two things at once: a record of historical heroes, and a detailed, exhausting chronicle of human failure.

Reading about the heroes is fun. The entertainment never lasts, however, because the author painstakingly takes care to point out the flaws in every hero and the crumbling society in which the judges found themselves. The author of Judges, like all the other authors of the Bible, zoomed in uncompromisingly on that one most unpopular topic: sin.

It can be hard to read the Bible for exactly this reason. It doesn’t let up on sin. Many people especially shy away from books like Judges, for an understandable reason. Reading Judges is like watching an extended movie called “This Is What Sin Looks Like.” It is a brutal read.

After a chapter and a half of setting the scene with some essential background information, the rhythm of the book gets going in chapter 2:

And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and served the Baals. And they abandoned the LORD, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt. They went after other gods, from among the gods of the peoples who were around them, and bowed down to them. And they provoked the LORD to anger. Judges 2:11-12

If you come to the beginning of Judges having read Genesis through Joshua, these verses will break your heart. For six books straight, God had set up every precaution, prescribed every law, held up every incentive, to keep the people of Israel faithful to him. He had given them a glorious vision of themselves as the beacon of hope for humanity, the shining city on a hill, a blessing and example to all people. To accomplish this, all God had asked of them was to “fear him, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve him, and to keep his commandments” (Deuteronomy 10:12).

By the beginning of Judges, the potential was huge. God had freed Israel from slavery and brought them to Canaan where he had led them in a string of military victories under Joshua, giving them the land and the security they needed to flourish as a nation. The question on everyone’s mind at this point in the biblical story is, “Will Israel pull it off? Will they keep God’s law and fulfill their God-given mission as a nation?”

The author of Judges wrote his or her book (the author is unknown) for the purpose of answering this question with an unambiguous NO. Why, you may ask, write 21 chapters expounding upon this simple answer, in such painful detail? Perhaps it is because the reason for the No was sin, and sin is complex and convoluted. Apparently, although we dislike hearing or reading about sin, we must understand it if we want to be deeply joyful, deeply useful Christians.

For Judges-era Israel, the disease of sin most often expressed itself by blending in with the pagans around them by intermarrying with them (3:5-6) and adopting their religious practices (8:27, 10:6, 17:4). It was the spiritual, not ethnic, dilution that mattered. In the same breath, people said things such as, “I dedicate the silver to the LORD… to make a carved image and a metal image” (17:3), as if even in the wake of Moses’ life people had not heard of the second and third commandments.

You shall not do according to all that we are doing here today, everyone doing whatever is right in his own eyes… Deuteronomy 12:8

In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes. Judges 17:6 (repeated in 21:25)

Overall, the author of Judges gives very little direct commentary about the events he recounts. At two brilliantly ironic places in his narrative, however, he pauses to say, “Everyone did what was right in their own eyes.” The author deliberately uses the same phrasing Moses had used several years earlier, before Israel entered Canaan.

“Everyone doing what was right in their own eyes”; that is how the author of Judges explained Israel’s chaos. And perhaps that is the most fundamental way to define sin: me defining my reality, what I will call good and what I will call bad; me deciding whom or what I will worship and love. Me deciding what is worth my time, my self. The god of Me, doing what is right in my own eyes, with no thought to God or the debt of love.

To list for your reading enjoyment a complete catalog of the disturbing, heart-breaking, and dreadfully ironic examples of human sin recorded in Judges would take a blog post unto itself. Suffice it to say the list is long, and diverse.

But why did Israel fail? They possessed God’s law, and every privilege. God had carefully inculcated into their culture both the motive and the opportunity for obedience. The Apostle Paul reflected on this question some eleven centuries later, and concluded, in light of Jesus’ advent and the Spirit’s outpouring:

For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin [or as a sin offering], he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. Romans 8:3-4

Because Jesus (1) came to the world as a man, “in the likeness of sinful flesh,” and (2) offered himself as an atoning sacrifice for sin, (a) sin is condemned and (b) the law is fulfilled in us whose hearts and lives are penetrated by the Spirit.

They had the law, but we have the Spirit. How dare we forget that for a moment. God the Creator, the King, the Judge, the Promise-Maker, the Promise-Keeper – the God of Judges – is alive, and living in us. The same Spirit of Yahweh who “rushed upon” the judges and made it possible for them to deliver Israel militarily now abides in us without leaving, making it possible for us do outlandish, “foolish,” beautiful things for the kingdom of God in Jesus’ name.

Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world.” John 18:36

Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” John 8:34-36

If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you… For all who are lead by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” Romans 8:11, 14-15

the greatest struggle

In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. Hebrews 12:4
What is your greatest struggle? To put it another away: against what do you exert the greatest part of your efforts and emotions trying to beat down and jettison out of your life?
To most of us most of the time the answer is: unhappiness. The thing we struggle against with the greatest part of our energy is our own unhappiness. The flip side of this is that happiness is the thing we struggle most to attain. Christians often express this by saying we are prone to “worship” happiness.

You may not see anything wrong with this. We want to be happy and we try to avoid being unhappy – what is unnatural or wrong about that? In fact, you may wonder, what could be more natural?

And yet Christ calls us to something different. In the Gospels, Jesus often told his followers to practice lifestyles of self-denial and self-sacrifice, naming servant-hood and martyrdom as his highest ideals. He called them to give up themselves for his sake. To put it bluntly, he demanded that they give up happiness for holiness.

Holiness is an unwelcome word to many people. It tends to conjure up images of obnoxiously religious people who think they deserve life’s gold medal because of their self-discipline; or, worse, infuriating hypocrites who harshly demand certain behaviors from others while failing to live up to their own sermonizing. Holiness means neither of these things, and Jesus hated these imitations of holiness even more than we do.

Holiness, simply defined, means to be consecrated and set apart for God. Lived out, it means submitting one’s will to the will of God: learning to love what God loves, hate what God hates, and measure all things in this world by his Word. It looks like purity of heart, mind, soul, and body; humility and the reverential fear of God; mercy, patience, and love toward all people; perpetual prayer and communion with God. Holiness is Jesus’ upward call for the people who love him.

“When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die.” -Dietrich Bonhoeffer

With holiness as the greatest goal of our lives, offenses against it are the greatest calamities – rather than offenses against our happiness. The sin in my own heart is my new archenemy, not the inconveniences, or even the evils, of this world that disturb my life.  Evil from without is an enemy, and it can be a terrible one, indeed; but evil from within is a greater enemy still.

Jesus shines a new light on our suffering. With holiness as the chief goal and sin as the chief enemy, a person begins to understand – albeit just barely – what the apostles meant when they wrote of rejoicing at the chance to suffer more for Christ.

Then [after being beaten and threatened] [the apostles] left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name. Acts 5:41

Now I [Paul] rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church… Colossians 1:24

Now, we are not slaves to the insatiable demands of God’s law, his perfect standard of moral and spiritual conduct. “We are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code” (Romans 7:6). Nor are we slaves to condemning consciences. “Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water” (Hebrews 10:22). We are – really, truly, more than the world can ever understand – free.

We must understand, though, that the great part of our spiritual liberation, received only from God, is that utter self-absorption is no longer our only option. We are wonderfully free to no longer think about ourselves 24-7, and perpetually obsess about our own happiness. Holiness comes from turning out and looking up:

And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. 2 Corinthians 3:18

There is a dirty little secret the world neglects to tell us. If your greatest struggle is against unhappiness – if happiness is your highest goal – you will lose. You cannot get happiness by aiming at it.

You can, however, get joy by aiming at God. And when sin is your enemy, when your greatest struggle is against the unholiness inside you, you can triumph o’er your foe with “sword of the Spirit” (Ephesians 6:17). The battle is brutal. The watch is long. The struggle continues. But the victory is glorious.

repent, believe, repeat

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” Mark 1:15

The Bible’s criteria for salvation are beautifully simple: repent, and believe. No mystic rituals, no secret info, no complex systems of moral progression. Simply: turn away from sin, toward God, and trust in Jesus, and what he has done, as your salvation. Repentance and faith are in fact two sides of the same coin, and one does not come without the other.

Repentance means reorienting one’s life, from sin to righteousness, darkness to light, life to death, idols to the living God.  Jesus told Paul at the beginning of Paul’s ministry, “I have appeared to you for this purpose… to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (Acts 26:18).

Repentance was the major theme of the Old Testament prophets. For centuries, they pleaded with the people: repent! Your sin is evil in God’s eyes! Do not provoke him any longer. Come back to the God who loves you; humble yourselves and he will receive you. Repent and find life. “Seek the LORD while he may be found; call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon” (Isaiah 55:6-7).

Their audiences, however, did not often listen. Israel excelled in showy religion and superficial repentance, imitating all the outward signs without any of the inner change. God said, “…this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me…” (Isaiah 29:13) Israel’s repentance was fake because they did not often take either the holiness of God, or the kindness of God, to heart.

Recognizing God’s holiness motivates repentance because it shows a person the gravity of their sin and the terribleness of God’s reaction against it. The prophets threatened the judgment of God in order to turn the Israelites back to the covenant they had made with him, drilling into their heads: God hates your corruption, injustice, irreverence, and complacency. If you do not repent, he will judge you for your sin, mightily and terribly. Look at the second chapter of Joel as an example. The first eleven verses outline Joel’s wake up call to Israel, predicting the impending judgment of God.

The prophets, and all the biblical authors, understood that something even more fundamental than the fear of God’s judgment motivates heart-level repentance, however. Paul said in Romans 2:4, “God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance.” The following twenty-one verses of Joel 2 describe the kindness of God, beginning with a character description: “Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster.” The most stunning display of God’s kindness is at the cross, the place at which the man who is God died for his enemies (Romans 5:6-11). The message of that story brings real change – and it really starts to mean something when the first point, about God’s holiness, is properly grasped.

Faith is the partner of repentance. Faith means trusting in something – Someone – outside oneself for rescue and change. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). Faith looks out and up for forgiveness purchased by another person’s sacrifice and righteousness earned by another person’s effort – that other person being Jesus Christ. “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (Romans 4:5). Faith does not trust itself. It doesn’t trust its own performance or effort. Faith rests – really rests – in the completed work of Jesus the Savior.

Faith learns from repentance the pervasive presence of sin in the heart and the total inadequacy of “good” deeds and “good” attitudes. Much of repentance is seeing sin for what it is, dragging it out of foggy darkness into penetrating daylight (Ephesians 5:6-14). That knowledge, though, if not coupled with faith which finds its security in Jesus alone, is devastating. Knowledge of our sin is always meant, without fail, to bring us back to simple gratitude for and wonder at the cross of Christ.

Conversion means: repent, believe. Christians too often forget that the rest of their lives follow the same pattern: repent, believe, repent, believe, repeat, repeat, repeat.

As the Holy Spirit opens a person’s spiritual eyes to their own sin more and more, that person will learn to repent weekly, daily, hourly. Life as a Christian is constant war against sin (complacency and apathy so often being the very sins in need of battle and repentance, of course). Turning, re-turning, re-turning from sin, meanwhile always resting, always secure, always satisfied, in the complete sufficiency of Jesus and his cross. That’s your life, Christian. There is so much grace in it. God does not give up on us. Until death or Christ’s return, the battle does not stop – but then neither does the rest.

“scripture is useful for… rebuking”

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. 2 Timothy 3:16-17

The New Testament’s vision of “church” is a far cry from much of our modern experiences of it. The Bible takes for granted that the church will be a family: not merely in the sense of a group of people who feel generally friendly towards each other, but a real family, complete with squabbles, intimacy, and up-close-and-personal, long-term relationships.

The pastors who authored the New Testament’s letters expected the members of their congregations to know about each other’s sin problems (James 5:16), to be talking about heart-level issues every day (Hebrews 3:13), to feel the suffering of other Christians as their own suffering (Hebrews 12:3). To them, no people had closer ties or more fundamental unity than believers in the church. Jesus believed the same thing (Luke 8:19-21).

Because the Bible takes the family nature of the church for granted, it also treats something we cringe at as normal: rebuke. A rebuke is an urgent confrontation in which one person confronts another about sin in their life, using God’s word, with the goal of repentance and restoration to God.

Doesn’t even the thought of that seem uncomfortable? And anyway, didn’t Jesus tell us not to judge (Matthew 7:1)?

‘You shall not hate your brother in your heart. You shall surely rebuke your neighbor, and not bear sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD. Leviticus 19:17:18 (NKJV)

In the Bible, there is no such thing as “passive love.” God does not accept generalized wishes of well-being as genuine love, nor is that how he loves. God’s love was and is both active and intentional. This crucial passage from Leviticus presents rebuke as the opposite of hatred and the companion of real love. Clearly, if we are not practicing this, we are missing something big.

Rebuke very clearly may NOT be

  • an opportunity for angry accusations, bitterness, or revenge (“You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge…”).
  • an excuse to express pride (“You hypocrite! First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye”). Herein comes the explanation about Jesus’ command not to judge. In Matthew 7:1-5, he attacks the pride and hypocrisy which so easily replaces genuine rebuke with the unforgettable analogy of a person who tries to help someone remove a speck of dust from their eye, meanwhile ignoring the 2 x 4 sticking out of their own eye. Love and self-righteous condescension are simply incompatible. He maintained the expectation, however, that his disciples would be people who are concerned with helping each other remove the “specks” in each other’s eyes.
  • motivated by anything at all besides love.

Rebuke takes love, and sin, very seriously. It loves the sinner enough to confront sin and hates sin enough to the help the sinner. As paradoxical as it might sound, love of people and hatred of sin go hand in hand.

The Bible gives a reason for rebuke in Hebrews 3:12-13. The reason is that sin is deceitful and hardening. It deceives us so that we do not recognize it for what it is: something evil and abhorrent to God; and hardens us so that we hate it less and less, and depend on it more and more, the longer we fraternize with it. Sin’s deception and the growing unwillingness to change it produces are the reasons Christians need rebuke from each other. Rebuke is designed to open blind eyes and soften hard hearts.

The Bible also provides a method. Jesus describes it in Matthew 18:15-17. First, he says, try to deal with it in private. Hope that the person will respond immediately by rejecting sin and embracing God (i.e., repentance). If not, bring along a trusted friend who will back you up as well place a check on you if your rebuke is unwarranted. If the person rejects them as well, church discipline – which is an important, but different, topic – may be the last step. Paul also gives direction on how to go about rebuke in Galatians 6:1, saying to do it in a spirit of gentleness.

Nearly everything about God, the Bible, Jesus Christ, and the Christian life, is uncomfortable. This is because we are a sinful race alienated by nature from the ways of God and the path of real love. God is good, though, and is not satisfied with leaving his children comfortable if it means they are deceived, or “happy” if it means they are far from him. We can never know true happiness away from God, anyway. That is why he commands us to rebuke each other, with frequency, urgency, and conviction.

One final question to test the condition of our hearts: are we ready, and eager, to receive rebuke, as well as give it?

Let a righteous man strike me—it is a kindness;
let him rebuke me—it is oil for my head;
let my head not refuse it. Psalm 141:5