Only One Way?

In school you may have read the poem “The Blind Men and the Elephant,” by John Godfrey Saxe. It describes how six blind men wanted to learn what an elephant was like. Each explored a different part of the elephant, and each had a different way of describing it. When examined from the side, the animal resembled a wall. From its tusk, it seemed like a spear; from its trunk, like a snake,  from its ear, a fan, from its tail, a rope.

“And so these men from Indostan / disputed loud and long. / Each in his own opinion / exceeded stiff and strong / though each was partly in the right / and all were in the wrong!”

The author was making a theological point. He wanted his readers to assume that there is more than one way to think about reality, more than one way to God.

The way our world is today, the problem with Christians is that we think we have the only way to salvation. We claim to worship the only true God. To many people, this is narrow minded bigotry.

Philip Ryken wrote, “Insisting that Jesus is the only way is an especially unpopular stance in a culture based on freedom of choice. . . . Religion is now called a ‘preference,’ which makes it sound like  a soft drink or a shade of paint. If you can go to the college of your choice, root for the football team of your choice, watch the cable channel of your choice, and eat the yogurt of your choice, why can’t you pray to the god of your choice?”

Colossians is a letter written by Paul to first century  believers living in a city which was a hotbed of religious and cultural pluralism. Colossae had a mixture of the pagan gods of Rome, Greek philosophy, eastern mysticism, and Jewish legalism. Many of these influences were blended into  a system of thought that was a precursor to Gnosticism.

This new cult taught that faith in Jesus was not enough. A secret, higher knowledge was needed to obtain wisdom and enlightenment. It taught the worship of angels and sought mystical experiences through secret rites and astrological mysteries.

If you read and study Colossians, you will discover that Paul borrows from the vocabulary of this new philosophy to argue against it. He uses some of their own words to teach what they denied: the sufficiency and supremacy of Jesus Christ.

Paul wrote with unfiltered clarity that Jesus Christ is sufficient: “In him we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:14). He is all we need to have a right relationship to God. He is the totality of the divine fullness. He is the cosmic agent of creation. He is the reconciler of people to God. He is over all spiritual forces, both angelic and demonic. By his death he secured victory over sin and the powers of darkness. By his resurrection he is proven to be the pre-eminent one. He is indeed the only way.

This is strikingly relevant today in America as people are being told that all religions are equally valid. They are merely different roads up the same mountain. No single worldview has an exclusive claim on the truth. No religion can claim to be superior to any other.

The only absolute creed in America today is pluralism, the theory that there can and must be more than one kind of ultimate reality. Edward Gibbon wrote about the last days of the Roman empire: “All religions were regarded by the people as equally true, by the philosophers as equally false, and by the politicians as equally useful.”

This is why Paul puts such emphasis on the exclusivity of Jesus Christ. The first chapter of Colossians is one of the great Christological passages in the New Testament (along with John 1, Hebrews 1, and Philippians 2). There is a finality and authority in his teaching about Jesus in Colossians. I recommend that you read it carefully.

The Colossian believers had “heard the word of truth, the gospel” (Colossians 1:5). They had believed what it taught about Jesus (Colossians 1:4). You and I need to do the same thing as we navigate life in a pluralistic culture.

Pastor Randy Faulkner

Fear and Trembling

To teach the Bible is a sacred privilege and solemn responsibility. James 3:1 says, “Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.” I know I am accountable to God for my ministry and that produces in me a deep reverence not unlike fear and trembling.

Having written that, however, I confess that it has been a joy to be a pastor who was and is dedicated to the teaching of the Bible. I was fortunate to serve in healthy churches, among people who valued Bible teaching Sunday after Sunday.

I worked hard at it. I studied the Bible many hours every week. There were other pastoral duties, of course, such as administration, counseling, personal evangelism, and visitation. But I gave priority to the hours for study and preparation for preaching. I believe that most of the people in the churches I served understood and appreciated that fact.

My preferred method was Bible exposition, teaching the Bible verse by verse. I sought to teach the meaning of a biblical passage, as best I could, in accordance with the intention of the human author and the Divine Author. If I wanted to teach on a particular topic, such as the Holy Spirit, or family life, or what the Bible says about the future, I selected a Bible passage that emphasized that subject and simply taught what the Word of God said about it.

For most of my pulpit ministry I taught through books of the Bible. In this way I taught most of the books of the New Testament. Verse by verse Bible teaching required me to give attention to all the major themes of the Bible comprehensively, not just my favorite subjects. I also taught through many of the books of the Old Testament, especially the psalms, wisdom literature, and the prophets, as well as the study of prominent biblical characters. I explored foundational themes such as creation, highlights of Israel’s history and prophesies of Christ.

In addition to teaching the content and interpretation of the scriptures, I sought to show their relevance to the lives of people today. I tried to illustrate my messages with stories and examples from contemporary life. This was to try to help people apply the teaching to their lives as Christians.

Believing that Jesus Christ is the centerpiece of the Bible, I wanted to include the gospel in every message in some way. The Bible’s main theme is how human beings may be in a right relationship to God. This is only possible through faith in Jesus the Son of God, his sacrificial death and his glorious resurrection.

In view of the eternal importance of this subject, it is clear why those of us who teach the Bible will be held to a higher standard of accountability. Let every pastor and Bible teacher approach this task with fear and trembling.

Pastor Randy Faulkner

Out of the Depths

The past several months have been difficult ones for me. A bad fall, two surgeries,  and unwelcome side effects from Parkinson’s medications have reminded me of how precious is good health. More than once I have called out to our heavenly Father “out of the depths” of uncertainty and anxiety. Psalm 130 has been a source of help for me.

It is one of the penitential psalms. It was quoted in prayer by the Hebrew people when they came to worship and to confess their sins at the temple of God in Jerusalem. “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord; O Lord hear my voice. let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy” (Psalm 130:1-2).

The writer of Psalm 130 was suffering emotionally and spiritually. His mood was dark. He was struggling with guilt feelings. Some believe Jonah prayed this psalm from the belly of the great fish as he repented of disobeying the call of God (read Jonah 2:2-3). Like the writer of this psalm he felt the weight of sin and regret and he wanted to be free of it.

In a dinner table conversation Martin Luther was asked which psalm was his favorite. He replied that Psalm 130 was among his favorites because it expresses themes which we find in the doctrines of grace: forgiveness, redemption, justification, the complete removal of the sinner’s guilt.

Guilt is different from feeling bad because of a violation of a social expectation. It is not a false, neurotic guilt that has no basis in reality. The guilt spoken of in the Bible is true moral guilt before a holy God. It is the sense that we are not what we ought to be because we know we have broken God’s moral law.

When we become aware of our sins and shortcomings, we may choose one of two options. We may repress those guilt feelings and resist the Holy Spirit’s conviction. This is what many people do, but it only makes matters worse. It is better to confess our sins to God and receive his grace and forgiveness.

“If you O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness; therefore you are feared” (Psalm 130:3-4). Here we find a summary of the major themes of the whole Bible: law and grace; justice and forgiveness; God’s wrath against sin and his redemption from sin. The good news is good because it is about the rescue that is available from the bad news of judgment.

We may be thankful for the little conjunction “but.” Verse 4 of the psalm says, “But with you there is forgiveness.” Many times, when the accuser, the enemy of my soul, has reminded me of my multiplied sins and failures, this verse has comforted me with the assurance of forgiveness.

We have a hard time forgiving others. We have a hard time forgiving ourselves. Some people have a hard time forgiving God! This psalm is a reminder that God is different than we are. He loves to forgive. It is his prerogative to forgive freely, fully, graciously.

So we are taught to wait before the Lord (v.5). We do not like to wait. Impatience is baked into American culture. We don’t like to wait at traffic lights, for elevators, in doctors’ offices. We like same day delivery, fast food, and instant messaging. But the psalm tells us to wait in the presence of the Lord.

“In his word I put my hope.” This is solid faith and certainty that God will keep his word. Commenting on this, Derek Kidner wrote, “It is the Lord himself, not simply escape from punishment, that the writer longs for. Notice that this is more than wistfulness and optimism. In plain terms, he speaks of a promise (his word) to cling to. . . . Night may seem endless, but morning is certain, and its time determined.”

The psalm begins in the depths but it closes in the heights. I have read that the deepest trenches at the bottom of the earth’s oceans are almost 36,000 feet below the surface. The highest mountain is 29,000 feet above sea level. In the closing verses we are taken to the highest spiritual mountain peaks: God’s unfailing love and redemption. I cannot read verses 7-8 without thinking of Jesus and his sacrifice on the cross.

“O Israel, put your hope in the Lord, for with the Lord is unfailing love and with him is full redemption. He himself will redeem Israel from all their sins.”

Pastor Randy Faulkner

 

 

Being and Doing

When Howard Hendricks was a student at Wheaton College, his mentor, Dr. H.C. Theissen told him, “Hendricks, master the Master’s life!” On that basis, Hendricks devoted himself to the lifelong study of the four gospels.

One of the advantages of reading and re-reading the gospels, is to show us how we may “learn from” Christ (Matthew 11;29). The apostle Peter reminds us of the importance of following “in his steps” ( 1 Peter 2:21). This is discipleship.

There is a phrase in Mark 3:14 that illustrates this. When Jesus called his twelve disciples, it was so that “they might be with him and that he might send them out. . . .” I cannot help but notice how being with Jesus precedes doing things for Jesus. Before the Lord sent them out he wanted them to spend time with him.

He chose Philip, Nathaniel, Matthew, Thomas, James the son of Alphaeus, Thaddeus, Simon the zealot, Andrew, John and James, the sons of Zebedee, and Simon, whom he nicknamed Peter. He chose them to be his apostles and to learn from him. (Judas Iscariot heard and saw, but he did not listen and learn.)

What did the Lord want these men to learn from him? He modeled perfect holiness and taught compassion, servanthood, prayerful dependency upon the Father in heaven. He was the embodiment of sacrificial love. He cared for the weak, the poor, the marginalized. Their being with Jesus was for the purpose of their learning from him the principles of God’s kingdom.

Many people seem to think that the first requirement the Lord puts upon us is to do something for him. But the first requirement in discipleship is not doing but being. Jesus is primarily concerned with what we are becoming. He wants to remake us in his image. This is a process called sanctification. He wants us to be like himself (Romans 8:29).

Are you spending time with Jesus? Is there a part of your day when you have uninterrupted fellowship with him? A time when he speaks to you through his word and you respond to him in prayer? Some call it private worship, some call it daily devotions, some call it a quiet time.

It doesn’t really matter what you call it. What matters is that there is the cultivation of a growing relationship with Jesus. Out of that “being” relationship flows the “doing” of effective ministry.

E. M. Bounds, in his classic book Power Through Prayer wrote, “Talking to men for God is a great thing, but talking to God for men is greater still. He will never talk well and with real success to men for God who has not learned well how to talk to God for men.”

Just as certainly as the Lord invited ordinary men to be with him, so he invites you and me to spend time with him. 1 Corinthians 1:9 says, God “has called you into fellowship with his Son. . . .”

Pastor Randy Faulkner

 

 

 

 

 

His Presence is Enough

Nature is predictable. It operates on the basis of fixed laws. Release a stone from your hand and it always drops to the ground. Put a kettle of water on a hot stove and the water will boil. A commercial aircraft weighing over 450 tons can supersede gravity and fly because it operates in accordance with laws of aerodynamics. Nature operates in a predictable manner.

This very predictability gives rise to science. Men and women investigate, develop theories, conduct experiments, then form conclusions based on evidence that nature behaves in a certain way under certain conditions.

The Bible teaches that there is a Mind controlling nature. Natural laws are a  way of describing God’s activity in nature. God created nature. God sustains nature.

If an all-powerful God can do that, he can, if he chooses, suspend, or interrupt the natural processes he himself created. He can break into the ordinary course of things in a way that is not natural, but supernatural.

This is what Jesus did. Sometimes he acted in extraordinary ways to meet the needs of people and to demonstrate his authority as the Son of God. These extraordinary acts of God are what we call miracles.

It is not unscientific to believe in miracles. Science has nothing to say about whether miracles may or may not occur. If people object to the possibility of miracles, they do so on religious, not scientific grounds. Science can verify or disprove natural, not supernatural phenomena.

Christianity is a faith which is based upon miracles. God became a man in the person of Jesus Christ. Many events in the ministry of Jesus were miraculous signs of his deity. Jesus died on a cross and arose from the dead. He ascended to heaven. He promised to return to earth in power and glory.

For example, there is an event that took place in his early ministry which is a vivid demonstration of Jesus’ miracle-working power. Jesus and his disciples were crossing the Lake of Galilee in a fishing boat. Jesus was asleep in the stern of the vessel. An unusually powerful storm arose. The waves were so high that the disciples feared that the boat would be swamped.

“The disciples woke him and said to him, ‘Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?'” (Mark 4:38). The Bible doesn’t tell us what they expected the Lord to do about the situation. They had seen him perform miracles before. Probably they were hoping for one now.

The next verse says Jesus got up and rebuked the wind and the waves saying, “Quiet! Be still!” Then we are told that everything became perfectly calm on the lake. What is this but a supernatural intervention?

The disciples were awestruck. They asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!” (Mark 4:41).

This story shows us who Jesus is. He is the God-man. In his humanity, he slept, exhausted after a long day of ministry. In his deity, he demonstrated his miracle-working power over his creation.

The story also contains a hint as to how we might respond to the dangers that erupt in our lives. Jesus had already told his disciples that they would get to the other side of the lake (Mark4:35). Even though he was sleeping, he was with them in the storm. His presence was their guarantee that they would make it to the other side. This was a test of their faith.

There will be times in our lives when we may be tempted to feel that he is unconcerned. We may be tempted to panic when we feel overwhelmed by our circumstances. We may be tempted to forget that he is nearby and has promised never to leave us or forsake us.

As a boy I was taught little song in Sunday school: “With Christ in the vessel we can smile at the storm.” As a pastor, I observed this in the lives of many people of faith and courage who were counting on the Lord to be with them in the storms of life, whether or not he performed a miracle.

They had learned to trust him. I remember one godly lady who had terminal cancer. When I visited her I asked her what the Lord had been saying to her in her illness. Her response taught me a lot about the life of faith. She said the Lord had been saying to her, “Just trust me.”

For her, his presence was enough.

Pastor Randy Faulkner

 

 

 

 

The Resurrection is No Joke

At this time of the year our thoughts turn to our Lord’s death and resurrection. Eternal life is offered to us because Jesus died for our sins and rose again in victory over death. This is what we celebrate on resurrection Sunday.

Yet there have always been those who deny the resurrection. The gospel of Mark describes an encounter Jesus had with some of his religious detractors. They did not believe in an afterlife or bodily resurrection. The way our Lord responded to them provides us with a reassuring basis for our own hope of life with God after death.

Jesus’ enemies wanted to do all they could to discredit him in the eyes of his followers. They tried to use the scriptures to disprove the resurrection. So they referred to part of the law of Moses which made provision for the care of widows in ancient Israel (Deuteronomy 25:5-6).

They treated the subject as a riddle, stretching the law to a ridiculous extreme. “Suppose,” they said, “a man died, leaving his widow with no children to care for her. So, in accordance with the law of Moses, the man’s brother married her to continue the family line in his brother’s name. He also died, leaving no children. So she married a second brother who died, and a third, and a fourth, and a fifth, and a sixth. The woman had had seven husbands, all of whom died” (Mark 12:20-23 my paraphrase).

Then they asked their big question. “If there is to be a resurrection, whose wife would she be in the hereafter?”  They thought they had outmaneuvered Jesus. We can almost hear them snickering at the ludicrous joke they made out of the resurrection.

Jesus’ answered that the resurrection is a certainty. It is not a joking matter. He said that they did not really understand the scriptures they claimed to believe. And in denying the resurrection they were denying the power of God (Mark 12:24). After all, the God who created the universe is perfectly capable of raising the dead.

He clinched his argument by reminding them that the God they claimed to believe in, the God of their ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, “is not the God of the dead, but of the living” (Mark12:27). The three patriarchs, long dead, were still alive in God’s presence. In heaven they continued to be who they were on earth, but without the limitations of earth.

Jesus also addressed the strange riddle posed by his adversaries. In the resurrection there will be an entirely new order of existence. “When the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage,” he said. “They will be like the angels in heaven” (Mark12:25). Now our Lord was not saying we will become angels. He was saying that in the resurrection God’s people will be like the angels. beautiful, powerful, created beings, engaged in the happy service and worship of God.

Marriage here on earth, as wonderful as it can be, will pale in comparison to the perfection of our relationships in heaven. Our relationships there will be unspoiled by misunderstandings, slights, frustrations and disappointments. There will be no jealousy, selfishness, offenses, or sin in heaven. In heaven we will know and love each other with a perfect love.

John Newton said, “When I get to heaven I shall see three wonders there. The first wonder will be to see many people whom I did not expect to see. The second wonder will be to miss many people whom I did expect to see. The third and greatest of all will be to find myself there.”

Jesus answered his critics who challenged his teaching on life after death. In his brilliant response he linked the resurrection to the existence of an all-powerful God and the authority of his written word.

In stating that God is not the God of the dead but of the living, Jesus is teaching us that those who die in faith will live with him forever. Is your faith in Jesus? In John 11:25 he said, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live even though he dies.”

Pastor Randy Faulkner

More Alive Than Ever

C. S. Lewis had a profound influence on the life of Sheldon Vanauken. Vanauken became a Christian when he studied under Lewis at Oxford University. In his book A Severe Mercy he described their last meeting.

Over lunch at a pub in Oxford they had spent time pondering the nature of life after death. When they had finished eating, they stood outside for a few moments and just before parting ways, Lewis said to Vanauken, “I shan’t say goodbye. We’ll meet again.” Then the great scholar plunged into the traffic to cross the street while Vanauken watched his friend walk away.

When Lewis got to the other side of the street, he turned around, anticipating that his friend would still be standing there. With a grin on his face, Lewis shouted over the din of the passing cars, “Besides — Christians never say goodbye!”

During this season as we anticipate the celebration of our Lord’s resurrection, it is important to remember that the hope of eternal life is not based upon wishful thinking. Our assurance of life after death is based upon the promise of Christ.

When Jesus was accosted by some of his detractors who denied that there would be a resurrection, he told them they were in error, badly mistaken (Mark 12:24). His opponents were religious skeptics who believed that this life is all there is. They believed the soul perished with the body. There would be no rewards or punishments after death.

This materialistic philosophy exists today. Doubts about life after death are widespread, especially now as our nation moves further away from biblical values. People seem to be pursuing pleasure and prosperity for the here and now, with little thought for a life hereafter.

The Lord Jesus answered his critics in Mark 12:25-27 by directing their attention to God. He is alive. He is the giver of life. Eternal life resides in God. Jesus quoted the Bible where God said to Moses, “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Exodus 3:5-6).

Then Jesus said something that is a key to our understanding of life after death. “He is not the God of the dead, but of the living” (Mark 12:27). Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are alive! If they are alive with God, then my parents are alive with God. My brother’s baby who died is alive with God. My friend Stanley who was killed in Vietnam is alive with God. They will be resurrected when Jesus comes again.

That is why C.S. Lewis said what he did to Sheldon Vanauken, For a believer in Christ, to be absent from the body is to be at home with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8).

The American evangelist Dwight L. Moody famously said, “Some day you will read in the papers that D.L. Moody of East Northfield is dead. Don’t you believe a word of it! At that moment I shall be more alive than I am now; I shall have gone up higher, that is all, out of this old clay tenement into a house that is immortal — a body that death cannot touch, that sin cannot taint; a body fashioned like unto his glorious body.”

“He is not the God of the dead but of the living.” This brief statement of Jesus is proof that faith in him includes the certainty of overcoming death. It is a promise of eternal life.

Pastor Randy Faulkner

 

 

 

The Lessons of History

I read an article on the teaching of history in American schools. The author bemoaned the fact that students are being encouraged to overlook the failings of other cultures while being hypercritical of the USA. For example the ancient Aztec civilization is renowned for architecture and agriculture, but teachers fail to mention their practice of human sacrifice. Historians may discuss the Great Wall of China without saying that it was built with slave labor in which thousands died.

In the teaching of US history the National History Standards are quick to call attention to the KKK, the Great Depression, and the dropping of atomic bombs on Japanese cities, while paying scant attention to the achievements of America’s founding fathers, scientists, inventors and adventurers.

In a USA Today op-ed, John Zmirak wrote that it is now possible to earn a degree from an elite US university without taking a single course in American history or classical literature. He wrote, “If we expect the next generation to preserve the constitution of a free society, we cannot send students out after a Lexus-priced education knowing less about America than the graduate of a Slovakian high school. But that’s what we’re doing.”

The writer of the book of Hebrews wants his readers to learn from biblical history. The eleventh chapter summarizes highlights of Israel’s past to teach readers of the New Testament to live by faith in God today. It reads like a list of heroes, a hall of fame of the Bible.

The people listed were not perfect people, but they are singled out because of their faith. John Calvin wrote: “There was none of them whose faith did not falter. . . . Nevertheless, although faith may be imperfect and incomplete, it does not cease to be approved by God.”

Regular readers of this blog have noticed that I have been surveying Hebrews 11. We have now arrived at verse 32 where king David and the prophet Samuel are mentioned. What do these men teach us about faith?

David, one of the great men of the Old Testament, trusted in the Lord when he was a mere lad, tending his father’s sheep. He faced the giant Philistine warrior Goliath with complete confidence that the Lord would give him the ability to defeat him. His psalms are a testimony of his faith. His kingship and the dynasty that followed are based upon his faith in the unconditional promise of God.

Samuel represents all the prophets of God.  He was a man of prayer. He was a man of courage who was willing to confront king Saul when he was wrong. He was a preacher of the truth during the time of the Judges when people wanted to do what was right in their own eyes.

The rest of the chapter describes the fate of many in Israel who were not named but they had a faith worth dying for. They were “tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison, They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated — the world was not worthy of them. . . . These were all commended for their faith” (Hebrews 11:35-39).

These verses remind me of our Lord’s words in Luke 9:23-25, “If anyone would come after me he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet lose or forfeit his very self?”

Living by faith can be dangerous. It involves the possibility of suffering and dying for the Lord. Hebrews 11 refutes the preposterous claims of some preachers that if we have enough faith (as they define faith), God has obligated himself to give us lives that are prosperous and pain free. As a matter of fact, this chapter proves that living by faith does just the opposite.

Warren Wiersbe wrote, “Most of us know nothing of suffering. The church in America is protected and almost pampered, but it may not always be so. The pampered church may one day become the persecuted church.”

He was right. The experience of persecuted and martyred Christians around the world resembles the closing verses of Hebrews 11. We’d do well to pay attention to the lessons of history.

Pastor Randy Faulkner

Imperfect People

We live in distressing times. Every day there are news reports that cause anxiety and uncertainty. Pick your issue: wars in Ukraine and the Middle East, the immigration crisis, political divisions, random mass murders, the national debt, the rise of autocratic extremists, and moral ambiguity. Many Americans testify to a sense of foreboding, feeling that democracy itself is being threatened.

Hebrews 11:32 refers to such a time in Israel’s history, the distressing days of the Judges. It was a turbulent time. The obscure Old Testament book of Judges is full of stories of strange events and strange characters that are hard to understand and even harder to explain.

It describes a time (about 400 years) between the Exodus and the beginning of Israel’s monarchy. It is an historical bridge from the occupation of the Promised Land under Joshua to the anointing of Israel’s first kings. The book tells the stories of twelve civil and military leaders who led the tribes of Israel into battle against  powerful nations that threatened their survival.

During the time of the Judges, Israel was a loose confederation of tribes. They had not completed the task of conquering Canaan. The religion of the Canaanites was a persistent threat to their devotion to the Lord (Judges 2:10-19). Their spiritual compromise is expressed in the key verse of Judges. “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit” (Judges 17:6). This theme is repeated later in the book (Judges 21:25).

The New Testament teaches us that we are learn from the experiences of God’s people in the Old Testament. “For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4).

A few of the lessons we learn from reading the strange book of Judges are: (1) The Lord wants his people to worship him as ruler. (2) When his people neglect  to acknowledge him, trouble follows. (3) Enemy nations are tools God uses to discipline his people and drive them back to dependency on him (Judges 2:14). (4) The Lord is gracious and merciful. When his people return to him, he is ready to forgive them. In the book of Judges we can see a four-fold cycle repeated: rebellion against God, retribution by God, repentance toward God, and rescue from God (under the leadership of one of his Judges).

We find the names of four of the judges in Hebrews 11, the faith chapter. They apparently represent the other eight. They were not priests or kings, but warriors who were called by God to deliver his people in times of trouble. In spite of some obvious moral and spiritual  flaws, they are held up before us as examples of faith. They are Gideon, Barak, Samson, and Jephthah (Hebrews 11:32).

Gideon (Judges 6-8) is distinguished for his unlikely victory over the vast Midianite army with an underwhelming 300 fighting men. All the credit for this victory went to the Lord. Other notable acts of faith were his tearing down of images of Baal, construction of an altar to the Lord, and his refusal to accept kingship, declaring that “the Lord will rule” over Israel (Judges 8:23).

Barak was called to be a leader in Israel by the prophetess Deborah who spoke for God. She summoned Barak from the tribe of Naphtali to fight against the Canaanite army (Judges 4:7). He agreed to lead the armies of the tribes of Naphtali, Zebulon, and Issachar on the condition that Deborah join him and share in the leadership (Judges 4:8). The eighth chapter of Judges is Deborah’s song of praise to God celebrating the victory of the Lord ever his enemies.

Samson may be the most familiar of the Judges. Every child in Sunday School has heard of this strong man’s exploits, as well as his moral failures. He may have displayed more faith in God at the time of his death than he did during his career as an unlikely hero (Judges 13-15).

Jephthah was a born leader of men, a warrior, who lived on the fringes of Israelite society, estranged from his family (Judges 11:1-3). When his neighbors called on him to lead them into battle against the forces of Ammon (Judges 11:4-11), “the Spirit of the Lord” confirmed his call (Judges 11:29). The Bible says that when the Israelite army under Jephthah fought the Ammonites, “the Lord gave them into his hands” (Judges 11:32).

His story is complicated by a dreadful vow he made to God before he went into battle (Judges 11:31). Did he really carry out his pledge to God to offer his daughter as a human sacrifice in return for victory? And if he did, how could the New Testament regard him as a hero of faith? He should have known that the law of God repeatedly prohibited human sacrifice. He should have known that obedience to the law of God overruled any rash vow that would have come from his mouth.

Bible students are divided in their opinions. Some say Jephthah’s daughter was given to Israel’s central sanctuary and dedicated to a life of perpetual virginity in the service of God. Others say that Jephthah was a son of his times and was influenced too much by the pagan practices of Israel’s neighbors and “he did to her as he had vowed” (Judges 11:39).

Clearly, God uses imperfect people. Gideon was fearful. Barak was hesitant and timid. Samson was egocentric and flippant. Jephthah was impulsive. But then, we are all imperfect people, aren’t we?.

God uses imperfect people who depend on him in faith.

Pastor Randy Faulkner

 

Faith’s Battle Plan

This year, 2024, will mark the 80th anniversary of what has become known as the Battle of the Bulge. This was a last gasp German offensive against Allied forces in Belgium, an attempt to prevent the invasion of Germany. The term “bulge” refers to the wedge the German army drove into Allied lines. Because of Allied resistance and reinforcements, the German army’s offensive was unsuccessful and costly. Both sides suffered heavy losses in the battle.

My father-in-law was in the American army in World war II. He was involved in this battle. He told me stories of the extreme cold, the harsh conditions, and the anguish of seeing comrades wounded or killed. He also told me about being a part of the victorious army that entered Berlin and occupied Germany at the end of the war in Europe.

Hebrews 11 was written to stimulate faith in God. The first readers of the letter to the Hebrews were tempted to retreat in the face of spiritual battles. The author of this letter reviews the stories of some heroes of faith from Israel’s history to encourage his readers not to lose their confidence in God’s presence or his promises.

Two people pf faith are highlighted in Hebrews 11:30-31. “By faith the walls of Jericho fell. . . . By faith the prostitute Rahab . . . was not killed with those who were disobedient.”

Joshua is not named, but his victory at Jericho is an example of faith in action. Rahab is named and honored for her role in helping the Israelite army achieve victory. These two people could not have been more different. Joshua was a national leader, Rahab was living on the outskirts (city wall) of her society. Joshua was a Hebrew, she was a Gentile. He was a man, she was a woman. Joshua was brought up to believe in the living God. Rahab was brought up amid the false worship of Canaanite idols.

But they both experienced profound changes in their lives to bring them each to their God-ordained destiny, the battle of Jericho.

The changes in Joshua’s life were stages in the growth of his faith. He was personally trained by Moses and prepared to be his successor. As he led the army into battle against the Amalekites  he learned that victory for God’s chosen people would come from God alone (Exodus 17:9, 16). When he went with Moses to the top of Mount Sinai, he experienced the overwhelming presence of God (Exodus 24:13,17).

By being at Moses’ side, he saw how God reveals his will and guides his people (Exodus 33:9,11). When he was appointed to go into Canaan as one of the twelve spies, he came back with a positive report. That experience taught him that the majority opinion is not always correct and that the nation’s disobedience would cost them dearly. Joshua learned that preparation comes before responsibility. It takes time to grow a faith leader (Numbers 27:12-23).

Rahab’s story is different, but it reveals her faith. She had been a prostitute. By this we may assume she was street smart, worldly-wise, and hardened by her former life. When we meet her in Joshua chapter 2, she was changed. God had given her a conscience and a hunger for the truth.

This flawed woman, stigmatized as “the prostitute,” was a changed person. She had a changed attitude toward the living God. She declared, “I know that the Lord has given this land to you. . . . The Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below” (Joshua 2:8,11). This was her profession of faith.

Rahab had a changed attitude toward God’s people. She harbored the Israelite spies who came to Jericho (Hebrews 11:31). She had a changed attitude toward God’s word. She had a changed attitude toward her own nation. She believed that God’s judgment was about to fall. She wanted her family to be rescued when that happened (Joshua 2:12-14,18). By faith she was identifying herself with God’s chosen people and rejecting her former life.

As promised by God, a great victory ensued. “By faith the walls of Jericho fell, after the people had marched around them for seven days” (Hebrews 11:30). The battle plan made no sense militarily. Joshua had no elaborate strategy to take the city by force. Instead he led the army to follow God’s instructions precisely. They were to trust the Lord who had promised success.

The plan gave all the credit for victory to God alone. The plan required patience: thirteen circuits around the city wall, once a day for six days, and seven times around on the seventh day. When the priests of the Lord blew the ram’s horn trumpets, the walls of the city fell down leaving the inhabitants of Jericho exposed and vulnerable to the attack of the invading Israelites.

We may conclude from this that God uses all kinds of people. Rahab is an unlikely example of faith, but we find her in Hebrews 11, God’s hall of fame. Joshua’s faith is an example to us of complete obedience, even when God’s plan seems illogical.

The city of Jericho stood as an example of Canaanite invincibility. When God’s people obey him, as they did on this occasion, he displays his strength on their behalf. “Faith is the victory” (1 John 5:4).

Pastor Randy Faulkner