Wednesday 19 October 2011

No grandkids (Judges 2)

It’s not a verse in the bible. But I think that this statement neatly summarises the message of Judges Chapter 2: God has no grandchildren.

That is to say, your relationship with God is personal. Just because your dad is a Christian; your mum is a Christian; your husband or wife is an elder or a deacon or the organist in church - that does not make you a Christian in any way whatsoever. You become a Christian by trusting personally in Jesus as your God and Saviour, and in so doing, becoming a child of God. But God does not have grandchildren.

Having said that, your life as a Christian will have a lasting impact - on your sons, your daughters, your spouse, your family and friends - in the way that you walk with Jesus and witness to the gospel. You life can be a positive or a negative influence on them. Here, we see both in the opening verses of Chapter 2.

The angel of the LORD went up from Gilgal to Bokim and said, “I brought you up out of Egypt and led you into the land that I swore to give to your forefathers. I said, ‘I will never break my covenant with you, and you shall not make a covenant with the people of this land, but you shall break down their altars.’ Yet you have disobeyed me. Why have you done this?
Judges 2:1-2

God reminds the Israelites the terms of the contract - or covenant, as it is called here. God’s part of the deal was to bless the Israelites: to save them from slavery in Egypt, and to give them a land to call their own. It was a promise God made to their ancestors, “I swore to… your forefathers” (verse 1); specifically, over four hundred years earlier to Abraham and his descendants. Since then, generation after generation had held on to this same promise from God. But none had seen its fulfilment until now.

Now, the Israelites were in the land. Now, over four hundred years later, they were a nation. They had seen God do miraculous wonders in Egypt. They had been led by great men of God: Moses and then Joshua. They received the Ten Commandments. They worshipped God at his holy mountain and subsequently at his tabernacle. They ate manna from heaven. God had been with them. God had protected them. God had blessed them.

But now God sends his angel to tell them, “You have disobeyed me.” The Israelites had broken their end of the deal, and had effectively made pacts with foreign peoples and foreign gods. “I said, ‘You shall not make a covenant with the people of this land, but you shall break down their altars’” (verse 2).

God is responding to the events of Judges Chapter 1 which we looked at last week. After the death of Joshua, the Israelites pressed on to take hold of the Promised Land. They began well enough, enquiring after and obeying God’s will that Judah lead in the conquest of Canaan. Yet as the other smaller tribes followed and encountered opposition, the people of God took the easy way out: They compromised. When things got too tough and the Canaanites were too strong, they shrunk back: they settled among the Canaanites and adopted the local practices of idol worship. Yet when Israel did grow strong, they compromised again: choosing not to obey God’s direct instruction to wipe out any trace of Canaanite culture and idolatry, but instead to enslave the local population.

God spells out the consequences for their disobedience.

It’s a sad sad situation...

Now therefore I tell you that I will not drive them out before you; they will be thorns in your sides and their gods will be a snare to you.” When the angel of the LORD had spoken these things to all the Israelites, the people wept aloud, and they called that place Bokim. There they offered sacrifices to the LORD.
Judges 2:3-5

It is hard to tell whether this was a sign of true repentance or a simply a show of remorse. Either way, the Israelites got the message. The Canaanites were here to stay. No longer would they be assured of victory. Rather, the rest of their earthly existence here in the Promised Land would be marked by ongoing struggle, turmoil and war.

Yet, I don’t think that is the main reason why the Israelites “wept aloud”. No, it wasn’t these local enemies that caused them so much grief. It was because they had made an enemy of God. God was now against his own people.

So they called that place Bokim (which NIV footnote tell us, means “weepers”) and “offered sacrifices to the LORD” (verse 5). Again, the question is: Are the Israelites sincere in their repentance? Or has God torn up the contract and is about to abandon his people?

It is at this point that the author does something quite amazing and I think, awesomely cool! To begin with, he zooms out from Bokim, giving us a bigger picture of what is going on. For instance, if you glance over to the next verse (verse 6) we find Joshua alive again (Didn’t he just die in Chapter 1?)! And if you jump forward to the end of the chapter 2, there God repeats what he just said at Bokim, “I will no longer drive out before them any of the nations” (verse 21).

It is as if the author took the remote control, rewound the tape right back to the beginning, and then fast-forwarded all the way to the end of the movie. I think he does this to demonstrate a a pattern that we see in the history of the people of God: Even in the face of our faithlessness and rebellion, God remains faithful to all his promises from generation to generation.


After Joshua had dismissed the Israelites, they went to take possession of the land, each to his own inheritance. The people served the LORD throughout the lifetime of Joshua and of the elders who outlived him and who had seen all the great things the LORD had done for Israel. Joshua son of Nun, the servant of the LORD, died at the age of a hundred and ten. And they buried him in the land of his inheritance, at Timnath Heres in the hill country of Ephraim, north of Mount Gaash.
Judges 2:6-9

So the author has rewinds the tape <“Insert rewinding tape sound effect here” - BWZZZZWIIIIWWW> and we’re back to Joshua leading the people of Israel into the Promised Land!

They - meaning, those who “served the LORD throughout the lifetime of Joshua and the elders who outlived him” - were the same generation of Israelites who could still remember Moses, who crossed the Jordan, who conquered Jericho; They were the first generation to step foot into the Promised Land. They “had seen all the great things the LORD had done for Israel”.

However Joshua eventually dies. Not right away; I mean, this guy lives to be a hundred and ten! He sticks around for several decades. And things were OK so long as Joshua was with them: “The people served the LORD throughout the lifetime of Joshua”. Even after he’s gone, they still had a few good men - “the elders who outlived him”. Throughout this period of strong leadership and relative stability, Israel knew who God was and what God had done. They lived in obedience to God’s word in under the men of God; men like Joshua; men who had seen all the great things God had done for Israel.

But soon after, everything changes.

A new generation

After that whole generation had been gathered to their fathers, another generation grew up, who knew neither the LORD nor what he had done for Israel. Then the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the LORD and served the Baals. They forsook the LORD, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of Egypt. They followed and worshiped various gods of the peoples around them. They provoked the LORD to anger because they forsook him and served Baal and the Ashtoreths. In his anger against Israel the LORD handed them over to raiders who plundered them. He sold them to their enemies all around, whom they were no longer able to resist. Whenever Israel went out to fight, the hand of the LORD was against them to defeat them, just as he had sworn to them. They were in great distress.
Judges 2:10-15

This new generation of Israelites did not know God “nor anything he had done for Israel”. When their parents died, the knowledge of God and the promises of God was buried with them. Was it Dad and Mum’s fault for not teaching them well enough? Maybe Sunday School was too boring, or maybe the sermons just didn’t hit home?

Yet notice the way verse 10 describes this younger generation again: They did not know God. Do you remember how the book of Exodus opens? With a new king who did not know Joseph. The King of Egypt did not know because he did not want to know. Pharaoh wasn’t concerned with the past - with Joseph who was used by God to bless Egypt when they were faced with famine. No, all he saw was a big problem with the growing population of foreign Israelite migrants in his land. This lapse in memory led to mass murder and the enslavement of an entire ethnic group under the subsequent government.

So similarly, this new generation of Israelites did not know, and did not want to know the God “of their fathers”. They followed new gods - the Baals and the Ashtoreths.

Now in case we come down too hard on this new generation, we need to recognise how these kids were facing challenges their parents had never known. Firstly, there was much greater temptation. Living in Canaan meant that they were constantly surrounded by idolatry. The Canaanites had their own local gods and deities. And many of these new neighbours appeared to be more advanced (last week we saw they had iron chariots) and more prosperous (they lived in cities, while the Israelites were nomadic).

On top this, these kids never experienced what their parents did first hand. They never saw the miracles in Egypt. They didn’t cross the Red Sea. They didn’t hear God’s voice thunder from Sinai speaking the words of the Ten Commandments. They had never had a leader like Moses or Joshua. They had never eaten manna from heaven or drunk water from the rock.

This was a new generation with new challenges and temptations. But God still holds them personally accountable for their sin of rebelling against him. Now many people have a big problem with this about God. How could a just and fair God seemingly impose the same standards of morality and faithfulness on a totally different generation of believers who had a totally different set of experiences and challenges to faith?

Because they were still Israel. Yes the participated in the worship of pagans, but they still considered the Canaanites enemies, and themselves the people of God. They still wanted the land. They fought the locals for the land. These Israelites wanted it both ways - to have God’s blessing as God’s people and yet to ignore God’s commands. In his anger, God hands them over to their enemies. “Whenever Israel went out to fight, the hand of the LORD was against them to defeat them.” God was now their enemy. But then it says, “just as he has sworn to them.”

God is faithful in his promises in times of blessing but also in times of judgement. He had sworn to bless Israel and he has. He had sworn that he would judge Israel’s sin. And he has. We see God’s unchanging nature in both situations. He is a God of his word.

Another thing: Even though this new generation of believers had not seen God perform any of miracles in their parents’ day, the truth is: it did not matter. God had given his people his word. That is the significance of verse 1, where the angel is described as travelling up from Gilgal to Bokim. When Israel first entered the land, Gilgal was were they set up camp (Joshua 4). God had re-created the miracle of the parting of the Red Sea, by separating the waters at the River Jordan. Israel would cross over walking on dry ground into the Promised Land, arriving on the other side, to Gilgal. There at Gilgal, Joshua gave instructions to set up twelve stones as a memorial; stones taken from the middle of the Jordan River - each one representing each of the twelve tribes of Israel - saying:

In the future when your descendants ask their fathers, ‘What do these stones mean?’ tell them, ‘Israel crossed the Jordan on dry ground.’
Joshua 4:21

As parents, the Israelites were charged with the solemn responsibility of speaking God’s word to their children. These stones at Bokim were a reminder of that responsibility to pass on God’s promises to the next generation. In the next chapter, we find Joshua meeting the commander of the Lord’s army (Joshua 5:14) - an angel of God. And I think it is this same angel whom Joshua met at Gilgal who has now come to speak to the people once again at Bokim. He reminds them that they had forsaken God’s promises.

Yet in the same way that God was faithful to the parents, so now we find God showing grace and mercy to their children. What is important to see here is that God was being true to the same promises in his covenant, but he does so in new and personal ways to each new generation.

The judges

Then the LORD raised up judges, who saved them out of the hands of these raiders. Yet they would not listen to their judges but prostituted themselves to other gods and worshiped them. Unlike their fathers, they quickly turned from the way in which their fathers had walked, the way of obedience to the LORD’s commands. Whenever the LORD raised up a judge for them, he was with the judge and saved them out of the hands of their enemies as long as the judge lived; for the LORD had compassion on them as they groaned under those who oppressed and afflicted them. But when the judge died, the people returned to ways even more corrupt than those of their fathers, following other gods and serving and worshiping them. They refused to give up their evil practices and stubborn ways.
Judges 2:16-19

God had compassion on his people as they “groaned under those who oppressed and afflicted them” so he sent raised “judges” - a position which has more in common with a military commander - a “leader”, as the NIV footnote reads - than a guy in a black robe and white curly fries wig. Think more along the lines of Sylvester Stallone in Judge Dredd.

We will look at these judges more closely in the remaining chapters of the book. But here, near the beginning of the book, the author wants to establish a pattern. (1) Israel rebels against God, (2) God hands them over to their enemies, (3) Israel cries out for help, (4) God raises a leader/judge to save them from their enemies, (5) The judge dies, (6) Israel becomes even more corrupt than before, and finally (7) the cycle begins all over again. Each successive generation becomes more sinful and more stubborn. “They refused to give up their evil practices and stubborn ways.”

An important thing to note from this is: God uses leaders. When his people sin against him; when they forget his promises; when they call out to God for help and salvation - God may do a miracle, he may destroy their enemies, he may send bountiful blessing - but more often than not, the pattern we find in the bible is: he sends leaders. It doesn’t mean that these leaders were good or godly - some of the judges we will encounter were just as sinful as the people they were supposed to have saved. But God uses them nonetheless. He did so with Moses, then with Joshua. And after Joshua died, he raised other leaders to bring the nation out of sin and back to God.

At the same time, we see that the people rejected God’s leaders. “Yet they would not listen to their judges but prostituted themselves to other gods and worshiped them” (verse 17). They knew they needed a leader. They wanted someone to protect them and lead them into victory against their enemies. And yet, paradoxically, they rebelled against any form of authority - especially God’s. The book of Judges is a prelude to the establishment of the kingdom of Israel, so already here we find hints of the people’s need for an ultimate faithful leader under God’s rule. Fast forwarding to the very last verse of Judges, we read, “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit.”(Judges 25:21)

Back to the future

Therefore the LORD was very angry with Israel and said, “Because this nation has violated the covenant that I laid down for their forefathers and has not listened to me, I will no longer drive out before them any of the nations Joshua left when he died. I will use them to test Israel and see whether they will keep the way of the LORD and walk in it as their forefathers did.” The LORD had allowed those nations to remain; he did not drive them out at once by giving them into the hands of Joshua.
Judges 2:20-23

So we’re back to God’s words at Bokim. This generation has “violated the covenant... laid down for their forefathers” - they have forsaken God. So God decides not to drive out the Canaanites. But here we also find the reason why God does this. “I will use them to test Israel,” God says. That’s very interesting! Why? Because God said the exact same thing of their forefathers. In the wilderness, God “tested” Israel (Exodus 15:25). That is, he wanted to know if his people would remain faithful to him in the face of temptation and difficulty.

It is worth clarifying what the bible means by “test”. We might think of a nasty Physics teacher who sets impossibly hard questions in the exam - to “test” us - and mistakenly think that God simply wants to make life difficult for us. Rather, the tests that we see in the bible are more like driving tests. You go for lessons and finally take a driving test to earn a licence. The point is to pass the test, not to fail. The purpose of the test is to make sure you learn and understand what you need to know to drive safely. So here, God wanted to “test” Israel to teach them faithfulness. He wanted them to learn to trust him, not just when things were going well, but especially when they faced temptation and difficulty in their lives.

Again, notice that God had the same purpose with the parents’ generation and the present generation in Judges. He wanted to test them, but in each case, the tests were rather different. This is because God wants each generation - and each person - to trust him personally.

I wonder if it is fair to say that  just about every single Chinese Church is concerned about its “second generation”. Often parents are worried about their kids growing up in a new country and environment. Sometimes they bring their kids to church, not so much to hear the gospel, but so that they will hang out with other Chinese kids, and maybe along the way, learn about Jesus.

Judges 2 reminds us that each generation has its own unique challenges and circumstances, but also that God’s word is timeless. The lessons from culture may be important - especially imparting wisdom and values to the next generation. But the gospel comes first. If we truly want to prepare the “second generation” in the Chinese Church for the inevitable new challenges and opportunities in the gospel, we must always put the gospel first.

One other thing - and this is a difficult lesson to learn. It is hypocrisy. Kids can smell hypocrisy from miles away. Here in Judges, God rebukes both the parents and their children for the same sins of unfaithfulness, stubbornness and compromise. So, integrity at home - in your daily Christian life and witness - is very important. Your friends will notice this. Your kids will see this - first hand.

But do you know what is infinitely more important than integrity in our lives? It is grace through the gospel. It is pointing to God’s faithfulness even when we have been unfaithful and teaching the lessons of repentance, forgiveness and grace. It is the gospel.

Good news

To say that God has no grandchildren, well frankly, I think that’s wonderful news. It means each of us has the opportunity to know him personally. It means he deals with me one-to-one. It means I can know him as my God and my heavenly Father.

It means that even though you were brought up in a loving Christian family; you’ve been to church week by week since young, and have read the bible from cover to cover - your relationship with God today can be as fresh as the first day you first heard about Jesus. Your faith is personal and intimate with Jesus.

It means that even though you were not brought up in a Christian family, and have never been to church, but have only just come to understand who Jesus is and how he took your sins upon himself when he died on the cross, God is your Father, and you are 100% his child in Christ.

Lastly, it means that we might be a screwed-up dad, mum, spouse and even church leader, and if so, we need to repent, turn back to Jesus, ask for forgiveness and restoration. But even so, God still deals personally with our family, friends and kids. He overcomes any and every one of our failings. Only he can bring someone to faith. Our responsibility is to communicate the message of forgiveness in the gospel of his Son.

Speaking of Jesus, the bible says this:

Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.
John 1:10-13

This is God’s promise to all who receive Jesus and trust in him. They become his children. They are born of God.

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