“And he said to Zebach and to Tsalmunna, ‘Where are the men which you slew at Tabor?’ And they said, ‘They were just like you; each one resembled the son of the king.”
This little verse is filled with idioms that don’t translate well at least in literal word for word English. First is the use of “Where are the men…” Gideon is not so much as looking for the location of the bodies of his brothers who were slain, though this is likely what we would presume from the literal translation of the text. The word “where” can also refer to “what condition” or in “what state” were these men when you executed them. One might even ask, in more idiomatic English, “Why did you slay them?” This understanding makes more sense of the answer that the two kings offer…these men that they slew appeared to be kings — leaders of men, just like Gideon.
The second idiom that is awkward in English comes in the response of these two kings. Literally they respond: “Like you; like them.” This can be understood in connection of the language of the son of the king — another idiom that refers to one’s comportment or bearing — the confident air that one in leadership would embody. It was obvious to these kings that the men they slew were leaders amongst men, not followers.
The practical application to the church of this is how many church leaders really distinguish themselves as leaders…so much so that the pagans who are against Christianity see them as a threat? And here, I am not just talking about pastors…in fact, I am not primarily talking about pastors, but the leadership of the local church…the Elders, Deacons, and other leadership of the congregation. Sadly, I fear that it can be said of few of them that “like you; like them” or that they carry themselves as a son of the King in such a way that the enemy would be threatened by their work and character. People wonder why the church in America does not influence American life…a big part of it is because the leaders of the church do not live their lives in such a way as to influence American life.
“And it was in that night that Yahweh said to him, ‘Get up and go down into the camp, for I have given them into your hand. And if you fear to go down, go down to the camp with Purah, your servant, and you will hear what they are saying and afterward your hands will be strengthened when you go down against the camp.’ So he went down and Purah, his servant, to the edges of the formations which were in the camp.”
Within these verses lies one of the most fascinating insights into both the character of Gideon and into the character of God. This is the night before the big battle. The Midianites are encamped below in the valley and Gideon and his 300 have the high ground in the hills. On a human scale, the numbers are outlandishly in favor of the Midianite Hordes. Yet God has promised that He will deliver the enemy into Gideon’s hand.
And know that Gideon is trusting in that reality. He must have in the back of his mind Abraham and the 318 men that overthrew Kedorlaomer and his five armies, but remembering events of the past is a very different matter than finding yourself in them. He was a man of faith, but he was no less a man. And men have doubts and fears; it is a natural part of our fallen state.
So, in the state of concern, God shows his fatherly and graceful character. He goes to Gideon and essentially says, “let me show you something that will encourage you.” God still requires Gideon to have faith, but he gives Gideon a little foretaste of what is going to happen next. And God even does one better and tells Gideon, if you are afraid to go down where I will lead you, take your servant, Purah, with you. What a gentle hand our God has when it comes to encouraging the faithful.
Our temptation, though, is to think that this kind of thing only happened back in the Biblical days, and that thought would be in error. The Bible itself is God’s witness to us through the generations that he will preserve His witness as well as preserving his people through times of great trial and difficulty. The sad thing is, despite the encouragement that is found in the Bible and that has been seen in God’s working through history, people choose to ignore it and take things into their own hands, usually fleeing from battle.
In our society today, many in the Christian church have thrown up their hands in surrender to the culture. They feel weary from fighting a battle on multiple fronts: fighting against abortion on one hand and the gay and lesbian movement on the other hand; fighting against Transgenderism becoming a norm in one field of battle and fighting against pornography on the other; defending our right to have a public witness while fighting against the flood of secular humanism that infects the curriculum of the local schools. And many voices in the visible church are signaling retreat.
But this ought not be. Did Gideon back down? Did Abraham back down? Did the Apostle Paul back down? Yes, they faced times of danger, challenge, and discouragement, but they ran the race to completion regardless the cost. They needed glimpses of encouragement, but they never counted the cost too great and they trusted the hand of God would be victorious, even if they did not see the glorious victory in their lifetime.
So, friends and loved ones, do not despair and do not retreat. Do not fail to seek out the encouragement that God offers in His word and in His world. And engage the culture with the weapons of God’s warfare: prayer and scripture. God’s word is Truth, so what have we to fear? It may seem wearying to face challenges on multiple fronts, but be of good cheer, because as Christ has overcome the world, so will we when we stand in faith.
“And the people of Israel did the Evil in the eyes of Yahweh. Thus, he gave them into the hand of Midian for seven years.”
As much as this sounds like a soap opera to many of our ears, this is the story not only of ancient Israel but of peoples, nations, and churches throughout the ages — even today. We would think, having been given the Scriptures, that we would learn from the errors of those who have gone before us, but we do not. Even as individuals, we fall repeatedly into patterns of sin rather than pursuing righteousness.
Midian is to the southeast of Israel and lest we forget, the Midianites too descended from Abraham (Genesis 25:2) and it was to Midian that Moses fled when he was fleeing Egypt (Exodus 2:15). Yet, it was the Midianites who allied with the Moabites to destroy Israel as they crossed the wilderness for the Promised Land, first, by hiring Balam to curse them (Numbers 22:4) and then by enticing the men to defile themselves with Moabite and Midianite woman in Baal worship (Numbers 25:1-6). Finally, Israel defeated them in battle (Numbers 31). Thus, while there is a historical connection between these two peoples (Abraham), there is no love lost between them as tribes and nations.
More sadly, because of the sin of God’s people, those they had once conquered now become the conquerors. Such is the importance of knowing your past and being rooted firmly on the Rock of Jesus Christ. It should stand as a reminder to us today of the importance of remaining ever vigilant against those who would usurp the freedom of God’s people.
Yet, society today seems to have neglected it’s past and forsaken its foundation in Christ. The Christian church still faces challenges to orthodoxy from within as false teachers and cults try and seduce those who do not understand what the scriptures teach about the character of the Triune God. Many protestants are turning their back on hundreds of years of sacrifice for the Truth and are returning to Rome as well. The Muslim hordes who were stopped first at the Battle of Tours and then outside the walls of Vienna. And as a result of us forgetting the wondrous things that our God has done, like the ancient Israelites, our society and culture is being dominated by liberalism, idolatry, atheism, Islam, and cultism in numerous shapes and sizes — and such is being found even in the church.
“And he gathered to himself the Sons of Ammon and Amalek and they went and struck down Israel and dispossessed the City of Palms. Thus, the Sons of Israel served Eglon, king of Moab, for eighteen years.”
We tend to have short memories. We want everything in an instant and to move on to the next thing. The notion of being disciplined for 18 years seems like a lifetime for most of us. The notion of having to wait 18 years for a deliverer seems to us to be interminable. And recognize, too, much like today, during that 18 years, the people would have looked to this leader or that leader to lead them out of their servitude. There would have been some “political strategists” who would have advocated blending their society more with that of the Moabites and others who would have been chanting, “Let’s make Israel great again.”
The reality, though, deliverance does not come from politics or from political parties who jockey for power. Deliverance comes from God. That is an important lesson to learn for all of us today who sometimes get caught up in the frenzy of political promises. It is also a lesson to remember within the church as local congregations often look to their pastors to “fix” all of the problems and bring growth. But the role of our governors is to be ministers of God to bring terror to evil-doers (Romans 13:1-4), to punish wrongdoing and praise those who do good (1 Peter 2:14). It is the role of the pastor to train and equip the church to do the work of ministry (Ephesians 4:11-12). The solution to the problems in America today are the same solutions as were the solutions in ancient Israel…repent of your sin, do justice, love God’s mercies, and walk humbly with your God. Yet, much like was the case with Adam and Eve, people today and during the day of the Judges, never want to look to self, but always seek to place the blame on another.
Thus, Moab and their allies move into national Israel and even take back the City of Palms, better known to us as Jericho (Deuteronomy 34:3). And, following the defeat, find themselves under Moab’s yoke. I wonder, will the Christian church today realize their sin before they find themselves under the yoke of a pagan federal government? Maybe we already are and are just too blind to see it.
“And you were not to make a covenant with those who dwell in this land; its altars you shall pull down. But you have not listened to my voice; what is this that you have done?”
I fear that we have lived in a pluralistic society too long to really understand the fullness of this statement. Certainly, as Christians, we can understand the prohibition about making covenants with those who are pagans, but what of the language of tearing down the idols of the pagans?
Of late there has been a great deal of discussion in the news about how the Islamic State, as it conquers new regions in the Middle East, has been tearing down “cultural artifacts.” Now, certainly I am not in sympathy with the wicked Islamists who are doing such things…particularly as they slaughter innocents in the name of their false god, but I raise the question simply to point out that in their eyes, they are destroying reminders of paganism from which they hope to purge the land. Is this not exactly what the Israelites were called upon to do?
Now, we have already explored the notion of MårDj (charam — verse 17) and should remind ourselves that Joshua’s invasion of Canaan was meant as a picture of God’s final judgement in the end of days. In those days, before the coming of Christ, God used his people as a witness against the pagans of the land. In these last days, after the coming of Christ, God speaks through his Son and the Son will be the one who executes judgment upon the wicked as he subjects all things to himself. Thus, while governments are given the power of the sword to execute justice, we are not given the power of the sword to execute vengeance or to purge the culture of the wicked. This is why you do not see Christians committing the kinds of crimes that you see being committed in the name of Allah today. Indeed, our weapons of warfare, as Christians, are spiritual in nature because our true enemy is spiritual as well.
At the same time, as Christians, we are called to destroy every argument and tear down every lofty opinion that is raised up against the knowledge of God (2 Corinthians 10:4-6). Sounds a lot like this passage, doesn’t it? In fact, when you pair this passage with Paul’s language of not being unequally yoked (2 Corinthians 6:14), we have, in essence, everything for which the people are being condemned by the Angel of Yahweh. How little times change…
Today, when we look at idols (whether they are made from stone or metal or whether they are made out of ideologies), we tend to see them as things to be preserved as cultural artifacts. And while cultural artifacts they may be, what happens when the society becomes inundated with such artifacts? And what happens when the Christian church becomes rather illiterate as to what the Bible teaches as truth and error? What happens? Sadly, the answer can be found by looking out of the window at the culture around us. Because we have not faithfully pursued truth ourselves, we have not faithfully taught that truth to our children. And because we have not faithfully taught Truth to our children, they are being seduced by the Pied Pipers of this world.
What is the result? Faith is and has been minimized. People typically see faith as that which carries them through difficult times only and they forget that while faith will carry you through difficult times, faith is meant to guide the entirety of your life and pursuits. The institutional church is treated much like a kind of club that one might participate in and Sunday worship is seen as optional if it fits into the busy schedule of athletic events and school activities that are “required” if one is going to be socially “well-rounded.” Kids are taught that their social lives, too, are more significant than their family lives. And we can go on and on. And it all stems back to the fact that we have been too lenient in the way we have handled false ideas and in the way we have taught our children the truth.
So, what shall we do? To begin with, we can do much like the people did when they received this judgment from the Angel of Yahweh…we can genuinely lament the hole we have allowed ourselves to fall into. But there is more…and it is what the people failed to do in the verses that followed in the book of Judges. They failed to repair the problem by teaching their children Truth. We know that because the next generation falls away. We need to be proactive with our kids that they know truth from error more clearly than we have ever thought possible. And to do that effectively, we who are adults, need to pursue Truth with a renewed vigor that is fueled by the grief over the wickedness of our land and the fear of our children falling repeatedly into the errors that the Israelites so quickly fell into in the book of Judges. And we can work to tear down the ideological ideals that stand against the knowledge of God — things like secular humanism, false spirituality, mysticism, situational ethics, pluralism, and the modern versions of gnosticism and sophism that have crept into the church. And in doing these things through a repentant spirit, we need too to pray that God would use us as a spiritual sledgehammer in this world to tear down the influence of those teaching error.
In the battle of Gibeah (recorded in Judges 20), the armies of Israel drew the defenders of Gibeah out toward the highways and away from the city by a feigned retreat. As Israel fell back, appearing to route, the heart of Israel’s army lay in ambush around the city, thus defeating the city while the city’s defenders were chasing after a decoy.
As I meditate on what is typically called the culture war, lately it has been occurring to me that we (the conservative evangelical church) may be acting a lot like the defenders of Gibeah. As we look around us at the broader culture, it is clear that the church has been losing influence. In many segments of society, the voice of the church has been relegated to the irrelevant and thus we find ourselves speaking only to ourselves and thus not influencing the culture around us as salt of the earth and light of the world.
Maybe we have been duped — duped into thinking that we are still fighting a legitimate war and as we pour out all our resources and energies against our perceived enemy, they have been gladly giving ground because they are nothing more than a distraction and the real battle has already been lost.
Before you get all angry and storm off, just hear me out because I am not a defeatist — in fact, if anything, I usually am called a “triumphalist” by people who don’t like what I am saying. Just bear with me for a moment.
What if we have been duped? What if the culture war was something that was lost a generation ago when people began allowing prayer and Bible instruction to be taken out of our schools? What if the culture ware was lost when evolution and situational ethics began to be accepted as the norm instead of a divine creation and absolute morality? What if the church’s acceptance of “Tax-Exempt” status (as if the Government ever had the right to tax a Church) upon the promise that the church would not play an active role in politics was the point where we lost the war? What if the cultural belief that “religion is a private matter” is where we lost the war? What if we have been fighting decoys while the enemy lay in siege and infiltrated our congregations and our homes, leading the next generation to stray from the church? What if the creation of the “Christian sub-culture” has been nothing more than a colossal failure whereby we have removed our own influence from the wider world? What if we are doing nothing more than fighting ghosts that don’t need to win because the real war has already been won? What if?
Do I have your attention? Just maybe? If we have lost the war, then that changes the whole paradigm and approach, doesn’t it? It has been said by many, the world around us today is more like the world of Paul’s day than the world of Luther’s day. If so, how do we react? How do we think differently?
What if the change in paradigm means no longer fighting a culture war that has been lost but instead, consists of building a new culture. No, not a sub-culture like we see around us today — that has not proven compelling (sorry, folks, my intent is not to hurt feelings). What if we let go of the whole Christian sub-culture thing and began really competing on the same footing and level as secular artists, writers, musicians, and dramatists? No, not in a preachy way, but what if the most compelling stories, music, books, ideas, etc… came from people who happened to be Christian and their Christian worldview informed what they produced (but was not what they produced). What if the best book, work, video, etc… in every field just happened to be produced by a Christian whose worldview was again, below the surface, informing what was thought.
What if, by building a new culture that was more compelling than the old culture happened to be (even to the non-Christian), was our tactic and approach. What if we realized that this is also not a new idea, but that others, like C.S. Lewis, were arguing for this kind of approach nearly 60 years ago — yes, when many of those things I mentioned at the beginning were lost! What if we approached this world as builders…though not unlike the builders of Nehemiah’s day, with spears in one hand while work was being done by the other. We need to defend agains the attacks that the enemy will really bring when they realize that we realize that their feigned retreat was a ruse. Something to think about…
In Christian circles, we talk a lot about the culture wars and at least vaguely, I think, most people have some sense of what is meant by that. As we look around us, the western culture has grown more secular and less markedly “Christian” as a whole and the culture war is the crusade that many have engaged themselves in to turn back the cultural influence toward one that is more markedly Christian. And, as one who has spoken and written on the importance of Christians living out their faith in every aspect of life (both inside of the church and outside of the church), this cause is one toward which I am very sympathetic. Having said that, can we talk?
First of all, I am not entirely convinced that we are going about things the right way in terms of what we are trying to achieve. Is it the culture we are called by Jesus to redeem or is it the people we are called to evangelize? One might respond that both go hand in hand, and they do, but which comes first, the chicken or the egg? The group that would broadly be defined as leading the culture war would argue that as we see a change in the culture, we will see a change in the people. There is a certain degree of truth to this line of thinking as it would seem that most people will go with the flow and do what is acceptable to the culture.
When the “Blue Laws” were in place, people’s lives revolved around church because there was little else to do. There is no question as to the sociological benefit of these laws as even the most basic moral teaching of the Bible affects people’s lives and behavior. Yet, when the Blue Laws were repealed, church attendance dropped, which indicates that the percentage who left were only there because of the cultural expectations upon them and not because they had a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Jesus did say that in the final judgment there will be many who will cry out, “Lord, Lord!” and to whom Jesus will say, “Get away from me, I never knew you” (Matthew 7:21-23). So, did the “Christianization” of the culture build the church? The church as an institution perhaps was built up, but the word “Church,” in a Biblical sense, normally refers to a body of believers that have been called out from the world and into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Arguably, then, the church was not built up by simply existing within a Christian culture.
It should be noted that we use the term “culture” in a variety of different ways. In addition, we talk about cultures and sub-cultures within a given culture. There are also various “cultural expressions” that people may embrace as well as the “culture” of certain pieces of music, art, or literature. In addition, when you are sick and go to the doctor, he or she may take a swab and apply it to the back of your throat to take a “culture” to see what kind of bacteria may be developing in your body. So, when we talk about a “Culture War,” what kind of culture are we talking about and is that even the proper term that we ought to be throwing about?
Typically, when speaking of a “Culture War,” we are referring (as do sociologists) to those shared norms, ethics, linguistic expressions, histories, folk-stories, values, and beliefs that bind a group of people together. We might talk broadly of the “Western” culture that has been dominated by the thought of the Greek Philosophers and Latin thinkers, the European Renaissance, and the Christian religion (as this was the dominant influence in the development of Europe for well over 1,000 years.
We might narrow the discussion down further and talk about the “American” culture or even about the evangelical sub-culture within America, but bottom line, it still gets back to these shared beliefs and histories that bind a people together. But how do these beliefs get propagated? Certainly they are not innate as cultural expression varies widely throughout the world. They are taught then, by one generation to the next, either intentionally or unintentionally, by those who hold said beliefs. And unless one makes a deliberate effort to “break out” of a cultural norm, that culture will continue into another generation.
Interestingly enough, the word “culture” comes from that Latin term colere, which means “to cultivate or tend,” and was originally used to describe the way that a farmer would work the ground and tend to the crops that he has planted. This is a valuable note because there is nothing unintentional about the way a field is cultivated. The farmer chooses how he prepares and fertilizes the plot of land, the kinds of seeds that are sown, and the way those plants are tended and harvested. Similarly, culture is created by those within the community.
Yet, if culture is created by those within the community, does the idea of a “culture war” really make any sense at all? It presents a picture of workers in a field warring over which seeds to plant — one side fighting to plant corn and the other fighting to plant wheat. Does it not make more sense to focus on changing the hearts of the planters?
Prejudice is one of the things that people have been trying hard to change in our culture (and rightly so). And in many areas, the work has been very successful. But what is bringing the most success? Is it laws that are written outlawing prejudice or is it people’s hearts being changed and choosing not to propagate the prejudices of their parents in the lives of their children? I would suggest that the latter is the tactic being used with success. I would also suggest that the families where people marry across ethnic lines is where you will see the most pronounced removal of the prejudices because hearts change when people are in fellowship with one another.
Does this mean that Christians should not engage the culture? Of course not, we are called to tear down the strongholds of Satan in this world (2 Corinthians 10:3-6). As Christians, we should express the faith that we hold in every area of life. That being said, we will not fulfill the Great Commission by once again having Christian thought and principles dominate the cultural norm; the Great Commission needs to be fulfilled by discipling people. And for people to be discipled, their hearts must first be changed by the power of the Gospel.
One final note on this line of thinking from the five years that I taught Bible in a Christian Academy. It was amazing how often I had students who could answer all of the questions correctly on a Bible or a Worldview test but when left on their own, would live as an unbeliever. The culture at the Christian School was intentionally Christian. The curriculum was also designed to foster a Christian worldview. As teachers and administrators, we had won the “Culture War” at our school (at least on the surface). Yet, we had many kids who could live in the Christian culture, yet were not being discipled because the Christian culture was not the culture that they had embraced as their own. The solution for the school environment was not to institute more rules or to offer more Christian “cultural” experiences. The solution is to get to the heart of the student and apply the Gospel in the hopes and prayers that God would regenerate their dead hearts and give them life.
The school tends to be a microcosm of the community and the Christian school is a microcosm of a community that is dominated by Christian culture. If we aim to change hearts by changing the visible culture, we will likely lose both. Yet, when hearts are changed, the culture will be changed by default. The “Culture War” as described is at best a crusade that will change small pockets of life — we may take the promised land by force, but for how long will it be held? Instead, let us wage war against the powers and principalities of Satan, seeking to evangelize the hearts of men, for this will be the “Holy War” that will bring long-lasting and spiritual fruit.
Of the tools at the devil’s disposal, it would seem that ignorance and vague generalities are most commonly in his hands in the landscape of the American church. Here is not simply an indictment of the unbelieving culture at large, for who should expect them to know all of the details of our Christian faith apart from an academic curiosity, but my indictment is against professing Christians who have been lulled into the false notion that they need not bother themselves with knowing the details of our most holy faith. Herein is the site of the devil’s great activity.
I read a recent set of surveys that stated that the majority of the church-goers polled could not name all four Gospels, let alone all of the Ten Commandments. Even fewer were able to name all of the books of the Old and New Testaments, let alone in order. How does one find a word in the dictionary if one does not know the order of the letters of the alphabet? How will you find a reference in Micah or Jude if you do not know where in the Bible to look? How will you know whether an idea is right or wrong if you don’t understand the basic grammar and vocabulary that is being used to communicate it? And when a bad idea is being introduced from the pulpit, how with the believer know the error if the believer does not know the details of the theology he professes?
The devil has lulled people into a sense of security within their pews and he has convinced pastors and church leaders that the most important thing in church is to keep people happy (and in most cases, entertained). Even seminaries have taken this tact, putting more emphasis on practical theology and classes in church growth than in Biblical knowledge and understanding. It would seem that a clear exposition of the Biblical text is about as unwelcome as active application to life even though such is what is most lacking in most church-goers lives. “Does it work?” tends to be asked long before the question, “Is it true?”
Yet what does the Bible expect of us on this matter? To Aaron and his sons, God instructs:
“You are to make a distinction between the holy and between the profane, between the ceremonially unclean and the ceremonially clean. You are to instruct the Sons of Israel in all the laws which Yahweh spoke to them by the hand of Moses.”
It should be noted that while God is directly giving this rule to the Levitical priests, as the people began to be dispersed into exile, it is a task subsumed by the Rabbi in a local community—a role that is arguably the forerunner for the Christian understanding of a pastor. In addition, since in the Christian era there is a priesthood of all believers (1 Peter 2:5,9), the task of instructing others in the things that God has taught falls squarely upon our shoulders. This would apply not only within the context of the church where the pastor and elders are to be the teachers of the people, but also in the homes where the father is to be the primary teacher of his family. Since there are levels of authority described in this model, it is worth noting that the Father’s job is two-fold. It is first to study himself so that he can teach his family how to distinguish between the holy and the profane and secondly, to study so that he can ensure that the pastor is teaching doctrine consistent with what the Scriptures present. Not too that this principle applies not only to what his family may learn in church, but it applies to what his family learns in every aspect of their educational process (hence the difficulty with educating children in the secular, state-run school system).
Many object saying that faith is primarily about a relationship with God, not about facts, propositions, and doctrines as revealed in the Bible, thus seeking to justify some degree of ignorance in the faith. It is agreed that faith in Jesus Christ is about a relationship, but note that every relationship in which we engage is one where there are ideas, facts, and propositions that are known about the one in which we are in relationship. In fact, the deeper the relationship, the more we tend to know about the individual. The facts do not make the relationship, but without these facts, no true and lasting relationship will exist. Note too, the way that God speaks of the connection between knowledge and obedience through Moses:
“You stand here with me and I will speak to you in all of the commandment and the prescriptions and judgments which you shall learn that they may obey in the land which I give them to inherit.”
Moses and the leaders must learn these things (with the aim of teaching them) so that the people will put into practice the command of God in the Promised Land.
The assumption, though, that is being made is that knowledge of the law yields obedience. On one level, there is the obvious principle that you cannot obey the things you do not know. Yet, Hosea builds this idea further:
My people are ruined for they are without knowledge. For as you refuse to accept knowledge; I will refuse to accept you from being my priest. You forgot the Torah of your God, so I will also forget your sons.
Notice the comment that is being made. When there is a lack of knowledge amongst the people it is not simply because it is unavailable, but it is because the people have chosen to reject the knowledge of God as it is presented to them. And as the people reject the Law of God, so too, God turns away from his people. The principle is that it is not as if God has not made his word known to his people, but that they have chosen to set their minds and hearts on other things, being satisfied with only a passing knowledge of what God teaches.
It has been my contention for some time that the relationship that the majority of American Christians have with God is one-sided and unfocused. We tend to focus our praise of God on what he has done for us through his Son, Jesus Christ. Certainly, this is a right and a proper thing for us to do and, especially for a new believer, this is something that is tangible in their lives. At the same time, we ought not stop there. Our aim should be to worship God for who he is and for his great excellencies of character.
When I was courting the woman who would become my wife, much of our relationship revolved around the special things that we did together. At the same time, as our relationship grew, the love was built less on our common activities and more on loving the person for who she happened to be. In married life, this is an essential transition, not because the common activities cease, but because those long romantic evenings tend to become more spread out during the activity of life and raising a family. Yet, after thirteen years of marriage, our love is deeper and richer than it was when we were first courting.
In terms of our relationship with God, it works in the same fashion. Early in our Christian walk, often the passion of our love for God is built on those “mountaintop” experiences that we have, yet as the Christian walk progresses, often those mountaintops seem to become further apart. If our faith is built solely on our experience of God and not on our knowledge of God, then the Christian life often becomes a pursuit of the next mountaintop. Yet, maturing takes sanctification and sanctification takes place most commonly in the valleys of life. David relates his time in the valley of the shadow of death (Psalm 23:4) as a place of darkness where he cannot see God at work. Yet it is the knowledge of God’s character as the shepherd and that the rod and staff are yet in the shepherd’s hand that gives him courage and is the basis of his trust. It is the knowledge that keeps the sheep from panic and flight.
Our culture has bought into the model that when they read scripture, the first question they typically ask is, “How does this relate to me?” or “What can I learn from this so I can have a better life?” My contention is that the first question we must always ask is, “What does this passage teach me about God and about His character?” The shift is an important one for two reasons. First, when we are focused only on personal application, we will not tend to read the whole counsel of God, but only focus on those things that can easily be applied to today. Why spend time reading the seemingly endless genealogies of the Bible, for example, if your focus is only on personal application. Yet the Apostle Paul insists that all scripture is both God-breathed and useful to every aspect of the life of the believer (2 Timothy 3:16-17)—even the genealogies! The second problem that arises out of reading the scripture primarily for personal application is that our motivation to study decreases in proportion to the comfort-level of our lives. If everything is going well, we often assume that we have gotten the principles right, so why bother challenging them?
My argument is not that we do not apply scripture to life, indeed, we must. Yet this ought not be where we begin, we ought to begin with a focus on God and then secondarily toward application and his works in our life. And since God is infinite, his word will provide us with infinite depth of reflection on his character to satisfy and strengthen our souls. And when we fail to pursue the character of God, our relationship with Him remains shallow. And when we fail to teach the character of God, the people’s knowledge of Him will be vague at best.
I began this reflection with the impoverished state of the church when it comes to Biblical knowledge. One would expect that if my supposition that Biblical knowledge is directly related to obedience (as the old song goes, “to know, know, know him is to love, love, love him”—and as Jesus states, “If you love me you will keep my commandments” [John 14:15]), the lack of knowledge that exists in the church today would betray a lack of obedience to God’s word in the church today. When one looks at the state of our country, our depraved culture, and the anaemic church in America, my point is made. When you realize that more than three-quarters of the American general public identifies themselves as “Christian” yet at the same time immorality fills our streets and rules our governments, we must conclude that something is horribly amiss.
The solution? It is not more programs or more gimmicks to get people to come to church, nor is it to water down the gospel so that everyone feels comfortable under its teaching. The solution is to combat the tactic that is being employed by the enemy and instruct people in the knowledge of God. Peter reminds us that we are to add knowledge to virtue as we seek to grow in our sanctification, building upon what God has initiated in our life.