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Ask the Vine!

“And the trees said to the vine, ‘Come, you reign over us.’” (Judges 9:12)

So, once again, it is back to the drawing board for the trees. They want a king to shake over them and to dominate them, yet they are also seeking out a small tree that is incapable of doing so. In other words, they like the idea of a king — shucks, everyone else has one — but they want a king they can control. Of course, as the old saying goes, you can’t have your cake and eat it too.

Thus the trees go to the next person in line, which is the vine. The term that is used here, גֶּפֶן (gephen), is a generic term that can be used to describe any kind of climbing plant, yet in the context of the next verse, it is most likely a grapevine to which they are appealing. Like the fig tree, the grapevine is a symbol of God’s blessing here in this life and in the next (Deuteronomy 8:8, Zechariah 8:12). And, as with the other plants mentioned beforehand, to step up to this task would cost the vine his fruit, hence the rejection to come.

It also raises the question, if your king requires something to climb on to give it strength, upon what will it climb? And how will it have to domineer the other trees to genuinely lead. Without a fence or support on which it may climb, the grapevine is unproductive and prone to all sorts of frailties and diseases.

Again, people are seeking a king because these candidates are suited to their own ends. Instead, they ought to be seeking a leader who is godly and who will point people toward ends that glorify God and provide faithful government to God’s people. The vine cannot do this and frankly, the trees do not want this…which will become all too apparent in their next candidate. And while we could rail against the political process in our nation, what about the process of choosing leaders in our churches? To what do church nominating committee’s appeal first? Are they looking for warm bodies to fill offices? Are they looking for people who are good businessmen who can make frugal decisions for the church body? Or are they looking first at the godly character of the individual? The first two are of value, but godly character must always be the driving question, lest you end up with a bramble in office.

The Olive Tree’s Response

“And the olive tree said to them, ‘Should I leave my fatness, which in me God and men are honored and shall I go to dominate the trees?’”  (Judges 9:9)

As God’s prophetic word goes out in this parable, it becomes clear from the words of the Olive Tree that Jotham is speaking about his father. While not perfect and while Gideon permitted the setting up of the Ephod, he rightly rejected the offer to become king. It is not the role of man to anoint a king over the people; that privilege belongs to God himself. Indeed, one need not look very far forward in the Bible to see the mess that men brought when they anointed Saul as their king — a king after their own hearts. How often we are prone to doing much the same.

There is also important significance to the way in which the Olive responds. He asks if he is really expected to leave behind his honored abundance to dominate the other trees. In Hebrew the word “dominate,” נוע (nawa), literally means “to shake violently.” The violent shaking creates fear in others, but at the same time, would very literally cause the tree to lose its fruit…and how else shall we judge a tree? The reality is that rule over men generates violence and this tree wishes none of that. Perhaps one might suggest that the trade-off is worth it, that the power and benefits from becoming king would outweigh the cost of one’s fruit. That, indeed, is the way the world views things. Yet, this idea can be explored on both an earthly and a spiritual level.

On an earthly level, this opens the door to the conversation about the doctrine of vocation. In other words, God calls and gifts each person with the ability to serve him in some section of his church or community. Some are called to be pastors and teachers in the church. Others are called to be teachers in the community or farmers, mechanics, administrators, or one of numerous other vocations that are necessary to maintain society. And thus, in God’s eyes, the auto-mechanic is no more or less important than the computer-programmer who is no more or less important than the builder and who is no more or less important than the banker…and the list goes on indefinitely. We are all called and gifted in different ways, just as different body parts provide different functions to the body, and in this way God is honored in his community. Further, no one should be jealous of another’s calling. Rejoice in the calling you have, do it to the best of your ability, and do it to the glory of God.

Yet, there is a spiritual level by which we can discuss this parable. Jesus equates the idea of fruit to one’s spiritual characteristics, thus we judge a tree by its fruit (Matthew 12:33). Similarly, Paul speaks of fruit as the result of our good works (Colossians 1:10) and of the “Fruit of the Spirit” as a reflection of the character of a believer (Galatians 5:22-23). Thus, if you are asked to do something or given an “opportunity” to do something that might bring you personal gain, but would cause you to lose your fruit — that is, your spiritual fruit — then you must not do so. To do so would be to destroy both your walk with God and your Christian testimony in this world. That does not mean that God does not or cannot forgive, but why would you wish to bring that kind of heartache and grief into your life for a short-term, worldly gain?

Yet, how short-sighted we can be sometimes, which is why God has gifted us in the church with faithful Elders who are called to be overseers of our souls. How important it is, indeed, that we learn to listen to their wisdom, submit to their counsel, and rise to God’s calling as is affirmed by them. That’s not easy for us as Americans, but for us as Christians it is part of living faithfully.

Christian Leadership

“And so, as Gideon heard the account of the dream and its interpretation, he bowed in worship. And he returned to the camp of Israel and said, ‘Arise! For Yahweh has given the camp of Midian into your hands!’”

(Judges 7:15)

If you have not yet taken notice, one of the hallmarks of Gideon (at least early in his career as a Judge) is that his actions are prefaced by worship. Here he has snuck up on one of the Midian sentry posts, overheard the telling of a dream that God has designed to encourage Gideon’s faith and confidence, and now, before he retreats back to safety, Gideon bows before the Lord and worships. It is probably not long, simply a reverential prayer of gratitude, but it is worship. And as we have noted before, that is exactly the mindset that every Christian ought to have as we go through life. For the believer, action begins with worship.

There is an interesting Hebrew idiom that is employed here when it comes to the interpretation of the dream. Literally the text reads: ‘As Gideon heard the account of the dream and its cracking open.’ The word in question is rRbRv (shever) and ordinarily it is used to refer to breaking or shattering something with force. Applied to the dream in question, the figure of speech is obvious. And though this is not a common use of the Hebrew term, it does seem to establish a bit of a play on words with what follows. For, just as the dream has been “cracked open,” so too will the clay jars that Gideon and his men carry be “cracked open” (same word). And all of this to crack open and destroy the Midianite camp like an old clay vessel. Such are the ways of God.

One more piece about Gideon…notice that as he rallies the troops, he gives them ownership in the victory. He does not say, “God has given Midian into my hands.” He does not say, “God has given Midian into our hands.” He uses the second-person plural — your. Gideon is the one called to lead this battle and God is bringing the victory, but the three hundred men of Gideon are the ones whose hands will seize the day. How important it is for leaders to remember this great truth. Worship God and give your people ownership in the victory. How easy it is for leaders (and pastors even!) to take all the credit for things wrought by those serving under or alongside of them. And, when that happens, how misplaced the credit really is.

Baraq is not Alone

“And Baraq said, ‘If you will go with me, I will go; if you will not go with me, I will not go.’”

(Judges 4:8)

We have spoken already of the theme of this account…that of men not standing up and taking leadership in the life of Israel. Here we see Baraq, the flash of lightning, showing his true colors. This is the reason that he did not obey God’s command in the first place. And here, even after the Judge and prophetess is confronting him in his disobedience, we find Baraq still being obstinate and stubborn in disobedience. Such is what happens when one places oneself before God.

Lest in hindsight, we condemn Baraq based on his cowardice and disobedience, we must be reminded that his actions are little different than men in America today. In our culture women tend to be the driving force when it comes to the spirituality of their families and many men are absent or otherwise too preoccupied to work or projects to be bothered. Many men take Baraq’s exact attitude toward Deborah when it applies to church worship on Sunday morning — “I’ll go if you really want me to, but unless you go, I won’t go.”

Yet, as men, we are called to be the spiritual leaders of our homes. We should be setting the bar for our families and living out a model of spirituality and faithfulness for our children and our wives to imitate. We should value the word of God and commit ourselves to studying it so that we can teach our families and then lead our families in the wisdom of the Word. Yet, more often than not, men in the west — men who are professing Christians — do not do so. Thus, if there is repenting to do, Baraq is not alone.

Spiritual Leadership in the Home

“So he showed them the entrance to the city and they struck it with the edge of the sword. Yet the man and his extended family, they sent away.”

(Judges 1:25)

Having been given the covenantal promise of protection, the man revealed to the house of Joseph where the hidden entrance to the city was and the soldiers gained entrance. Once inside they put the city to the edge of the sword (literally, to “the mouth of the sword”). Much as we discussed above, with MårDj (charam — see verse 17), this language speaks of devoting to death everything living within the city. And, as we noted above, this only makes sense in light of a surprise attack upon the city and a surprise attack only makes sense if we understand the entrance to be a secondary, unguarded entrance of which only the inhabitants of the city knew.

In putting the city to the sword, they do provide safe passage for the man who betrayed Luz to the sons of Joseph…but not just to him alone. We discover here that it is his entire, extended family that is delivered. The Hebrew term for “family” that is found here is hDjDÚpVvIm (mishpachah), which refers not only to one’s immediate family, but also to one’s extended family as well — one could translate this even as “clan.” In the historical reading of the text, this only makes sense as the man moves the region of the Hittites (to the north) and establishes a city — a task that would have been all but impossible either alone or with just one’s immediate family. Yet, with an extended family, the result seems far more plausible.

While this deliverance is a reminder of the deliverance of Rahab and her family when Jericho fell, it is also a reminder of the principle of covenant headship. As the head of his family (and clearly, of his extended family), he has the right and privilege of negotiating on behalf of his family as a whole. The family suffers with him in failure but the whole family benefits when he does what is right.

What is fascinating is the change of direction that God providentially seems to give this man, for this account is not just about the deliverance of an individual, but of a family. The city has fortified itself as it soon will be under siege and this man sneaks out with no indication that any of his family is with him. Of course, we don’t know the motivation for this — perhaps he was seeing if this was a safe way to exit the city and would then go back for his family. At the same time, there is nothing to indicate he was trying to save anyone’s skin but his own. If this latter case is true, through his capture by the sons of Joseph and his betrayal of the city, not only was his family delivered…but he was delivered from his own sin of not caring for his family.

One of the plagues on the culture in the west is how often men seem to abdicate their responsibility and their role in their family. Many desert their children, leaving them to be raised by their mothers alone. Many choose to spend their money on themselves rather than sacrificing to provide for a family. But even when men do not desert their financial responsibilities to their families, they sadly abdicate their spiritual responsibility to lead their homes, once again, laying that burden on their wives.

Men, we have a covenant responsibility to lead our households in spiritual things. We must be the primary teachers of our family when it comes to the Bible, to theology, to spiritual living, and to covenant faithfulness. We teach in our actions, we teach in our lifestyle, but we also need to teach intentionally by opening up the Bible, reading it to our families, and instructing them in its meaning and application. And it also includes praying for and with our families as well as teaching them to pray. But how do you teach what you do not know? We must strive to be the “experts in our home” as we are the masters of our homes. That’s the heart of being a spiritual head. The question for those men who are reading this is will you? The question for those ladies who are reading this is, will you encourage your husbands to do so?

Laban or Abraham; Managers or Leaders?

“And Rebekah had a brother and his name was Laban. Laban ran to the man which was standing by the spring. Thus it was when he saw the nose-ring and the bracelets over the hands of his sister and when he heard the words of Rebekah his sister saying, “This is what the man said to me,” he went out to the man and behold, he was standing by the camels by the spring.”

(Genesis 24:29-30)


The temptation might be to see these two verses as somewhat redundant, the second just giving more detail than the first. Some have even gone as far as to suggest two sources are being combined here by a later editor, but such misses the point of what the author is seeking to do. One must remember that the audience would largely have heard these stories told orally and that this story is meant to be a dramatic one. Here too we are at the climax of the story when Eliezer has finally found and identified Rebekah and we are excitedly waiting to find out what might happen next. In addition, we are being introduced to Laban, who will once again become a major character in the life of God’s chosen people for it is to Laban that Isaac’s son, Jacob, will go to find a wife. So, as the story is told, all of these things are being combined together with narrative style to build tension and to give a taste of what is to come.

Thus, when we read the second verse, we should not see it as redundant but as a dramatic foretaste of the character of Laban. We are told that Laban ran to the man who was standing by the spring, but as Moses is writing this account many years later, he also wants to give us insight as to why Laban is running to meet this man. And the “why” begins with the fact that Laban has seen the wealth with which Rebekah so casually returns. It will not be until Isaac’s son encounters Laban that we see the extent of the man’s greed and conniving ways, but here we are given clear enough indication that money and personal gain is a focal point of his life, hence what some perceive as repetition.

Sadly, Laban is not all too different than many professing Christians. How often people take the mindset of, “what will this do for me?”, rather than “how can I serve you?” How often churches also fall into this trap, focusing on their own personal agendas rather than on the glory of Christ and on His greater kingdom. How often do we find one church helping to pay off the mortgage of another in the community? How often do we find one group within a church saying, “let’s work together to see your goals realized before we see our own goals met.” How often we have agendas and not goals, ideas but no vision? All too often we act more like Laban than like Abraham or even like Eliezer.

It is said that in church leadership what we usually get is managers, people who labor to maintain the status quo, keep people happy and content, and seek to make sure that the financial obligations of the church are met. Yet, leadership is not management. Anyone can manage; few can lead because leadership takes vision and direction and means walking forward and challenging people to follow. Management means keeping expectations consistent where leadership demands that the bar of expectations be raised and then reached for. Management will raise up Labans into authority; Leadership calls for Abrahams. The question is which will it be? Labans lead to churches, segments of churches, and people that are self-serving and who will protect their assets; Abrahams lead to churches and people who walk forward in faith no matter what the cost. Which looks more like the church that Christ has called us to be?

Turning the Model Around: Mentoring Evangelism

For about 5 years I have been teaching High School students how important it is to have a mentor and how to go about seeking someone to mentor them. We talk about setting goals, knowing what you would like to achieve, and about looking for a man or woman who has achieved those goals already who might be willing to serve as a mentor. We also talk a great deal about the character of the person sought as a mentor and how that character reflects that person’s commitment to Christ. And we also talk about how to approach such a candidate for mentoring purposes without making that person feel like they are tying themselves into a long-term relationship.

All of this is fine and good. We need mentors at every level—I seek out mentors myself. Of late, though, I have realized that I have concentrated primarily on the ascending relationship of finding mentors and that I have not focused much on looking downward (if you will allow me the analogy)—the looking for someone to mentor. And, to be more specific than that, as a Christian leader, I have been reflecting on the principle of looking for people to mentor for the express purpose of evangelism, not just to replicate the successes you have had in the lives of others.

Usually, as we walk though life, we are all pretty self-centered. Sorry to offend if I have stepped on toes, but all of us can be pretty-self serving if left to our own devices. We want people to mentor us so that we can get ahead in business or in other personal goals. We even want to mentor others so that we can replicate ourselves in them…sometimes even living vicariously through the person we have sought to mentor. We do it as Christians and we even do it in the Christian church. How often we attract people to the church by attracting them to the pastor (his messages, his vision, etc…). I am suggesting that the model needs to be rethought.

The Apostle Paul told the church that they should seek to imitate him, but he did not end there. Paul said that the church should imitate him so that they may imitate Christ as they see Christ in him (1 Corinthians 11:1; 1 Thessalonians 1:6). In addition, both Paul and the writer of Hebrews affirmed that we ought to watch believers who are more mature than we are to learn about Christ from them (Philippians 3:17; 1 Thessalonians 2:14; Hebrews 13:7). The principle is that we attract to ourselves with the purpose of turning to Christ.

So, what model am I proposing? To begin with, I propose a mentoring model that is driven from the top, not from the bottom. Highly motivated people will always seek out mentors above them; those who are Christians and leaders in the community ought to start aggressively looking for those they would like to mentor and then invest time and resources into that person. Take them out to lunch several times, learn their goals and aspirations, and build a relationship with that young man or young woman. Then, use that relationship as an opportunity to evangelize those who you are mentoring.

To take that and apply that to a church context, pastors ought not stop at attracting people to themselves, but should attract people to themselves for the purpose of pointing people not only to Christ but also to those in the congregation who are mature in their faith. Thus the pastor functions as one who creates mentoring opportunities between two others within his congregational context.

To a degree, churches that are building small groups are accomplishing something like this model—groups of people living life together. I am not knocking small groups, they are necessary for building community, but where the small group model can fall short is in two ways. First, small groups typically do not exist to spawn other small groups; the purpose of a small group is to live life-on-life together in a relationship that grows deep over a long period and is not necessarily focused on growing wide. The small group model essentially takes a group of people who are at roughly the same point in their spiritual walk and grows them together. Sometimes small groups will grow and spin off other small groups; this happens best as an organic division (a younger leader is rising up and is ready to “spread his wings”) and not as a programmed split (if you tell people that they will be part of this small group for two years and then split off, the relationships will never grow vulnerable, transparent, or deep).

Mentoring, though has a different goal in its sights. Mentoring’s purpose is to take someone and assist them in reaching a specific goal. There are markers and the relationship is designed to be temporary. My role as a mentor, typically, is to help identify untapped potential in you and to help you grow in your gifts to a certain end; either to accomplish a specific goal I have already achieved or to exceed the plateau that I have reached. Mentoring relationships are deep, but in a very limited respect in that the depth is focused not on life in general, but upon the specific goal and purpose that is in sight.

The second area in which the small group model sometimes falls short is that small groups can become disconnected from other small groups within the church body—especially when the church is larger. There may be unity within groups “x” and “y” respectively, but many times, not unity between those in groups “x” and “y.” Some of this “inter-group” unity can be achieved through group projects or if co-workers, family, or friends are spread between multiple small groups. Also, said connections can be found when people in various small groups serve in the larger church fellowship—fellow Sunday School teachers, on the music team, etc…

Yet, to use the analogy that Paul employs in 1 Corinthians 12, the body is not made up of a bunch of isolated parts or parts that only occasionally come together. In the body, all of the parts exist organically together and in harmony. We are accustomed to reflecting on this passage in terms of individuals, but the analogy also applies to small groups. The reality is that none of us are a hand or a foot or a kidney unto ourselves, but we are individual cells that are part of the hand, foot, or kidney. In a small group model, the groups as a whole are the body parts and need a means by which they can be bonded together. The “coming together” of the church body on Sunday is part of that equation, but body parts do not occasionally come together; they exist together in connection as a whole.

The model that I am suggesting pictures the church body as a giant, interconnected network—a giant constellation per say—where everyone is connected to one or two mentors and one or two people they are mentoring. This is not meant as a replacement for small groups, but an addition to. To continue with the body analogy, the network of mentoring relationships being like the network of nerves or capillaries that transport life-giving blood to every body part and provide an inter-connected network by which the small groups never become isolated from the whole. And that the mentoring process be used for the intentional purpose of evangelism and discipling (Great Commission) as well as be designed to grow intentionally outward into the community around us and not inward. In other words, while typically small groups exist to serve the church, the mentoring network not only connects the church parts internally, but connects the church externally to the community.

If this model is done well, you will even find mentoring relationships between local church bodies. This is not for the purpose of stealing people from one local fellowship to another,  but to build up the kingdom. Remember, Christ has one body (now we are applying this to inter-Church relationships), there needs to be an interconnectivity between Bible believing churches that runs deeper than the local pastors’ association. Surely we would all agree that any one of our towns or cities are large enough that no one church is big enough to effectively be salt and light for the whole. Getting on mission means getting out and being that witness in our community, but it also means that those who are not against us are for us (Mark 9:40; Luke 9:50).

In this context, part of the role of the pastor is to know existing members well enough that new people to the church can be introduced not only to small groups, but to members that will reach out to them and provide them with mentoring. Also, it is his job to know the community well enough that he can connect mature Christians in his church to those who could use mentoring (and evangelization) in the community…kind of like a spiritual match-making service (though I detest the analogy).

It should be noted that this model is almost impossible to monitor. In a church that is large enough to support a connectional pastor, perhaps he can facilitate such relationships, but for most of us who pastor either single or small-staff churches, it is not realistically feasible to know who is mentoring whom throughout your church network. At the same time, that is the organic nature of the church. We are not simply a mechanical organization with rules and guidelines that can be easily charted, but we are a living and breathing entity—structured indeed, we are not a blob from outer-space—and just as a medical doctor does not always know everything that is going on within you, but will have a good sense of your overall health, so too the pastor and leadership of the church will have a sense of what is going on, but may not be able to map out the ever changing network of mentoring relationships.

Yet, is this not the relationship we find in the Bible and in the early church (one where having large buildings and facilities was not possible ala Roman law). Barnabas saw what God was doing in Paul and facilitated Paul’s connection with the Apostles in Jerusalem. Paul identified Timothy for the purpose of mentoring him. Timothy was instructed to find others to mentor who would hold fast to the faith handed down from person to person, generation to generation. We are part of that giant mentoring network through history and mentoring happens within our churches in ways that none of us are aware. But where I believe our churches need to go is to the next step where we become intentional about creating the network of mentoring relationships inside and outside of our church body with a specific aim of evangelizing those whom we have sought out to mentor.