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Saturday, April 21, 2012

Of Love and a Conure

What does an aggressive, flesh-biting bird teach us about imitating God by loving others? Quite a lot as it turns out. This was moving to me, and I hope it is to you too.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

An Amazing Comparison: Why a Biblical Book Couldn't Be More Relevant to Our Time

I have been preaching through the book of 1 Corinthians in my church. I have never had quite as vivid an experience both of how foreign the New Testament world is to us culturally and of how incredibly familiar their values and ways of relating to each other are to ours today.

As I was reflecting on this, I read something in a landmark commentary on 1 Corinthians written by Anthony C. Thiselton (2000) that I’ve consulted at times during my series. He makes an uncontestable case that despite how alien many of the Corinthians’ customs and habits are to us, our values, assumptions, and social dynamics in the West today are probably more like the Corinthians’ than at any time since the 1st century, and therefore Paul’s epistle as it stands has never been more relevant since the time of its original readers. He concludes that argument with this paragraph with his emphasis (because it’s out of context you might not be able to understand or appreciate the weight of what he’s saying, but I’m putting it here because I think it’s awesome):
Given the issues of (1) status inconsistency, (2) religious pluralism, (3) cosmopolitan immigration and trade, (4) priority of market forces not only in business but also in rhetoric, and (5) the emphasis upon recognition and perception of honor or shame within a socially constructed world, Paul would have been surely astonished at either (a) early twenty-first century laments about the problems of having to address a pluralist culture supposedly for the first time; or (b) early twenty-first celebrations over the demise of a transcontextual rationality in favor of a “local,” social construction of truth. With today’s “postmodern” mood we may compare the self-sufficient, self-congratulatory culture of Corinth coupled with an obsession about peer-group prestige, success in competition, their devaluing of tradition and universals, and near contempt for those without standing in some chosen value system. All this provides an embarrassingly close model of a postmodern context for the gospel in our own times, even given the huge historical differences and distances in so many other respects. Quite apart from its rich theology of grace, the cross, the Holy Spirit, the ministry, love, and the resurrection, as an example of communicative action between the gospel and the world of given time, 1 Corinthians stands in a distinctive position of relevance to our own times [16-17].

Monday, April 2, 2012

Good, but Dumb

In college I took a class on the historical books of the Old Testament (i.e., the ones that describe the history of Israel from the conquest of Canaan to the exile). The writers of Kings and Chronicles bluntly assess each king of Israel and of Judah as good (devoted to Yahweh) or bad (worshiping idols). My professor (Michael Harbin) made a timeline that he showed us every day of class with the length of rule of each king colored some shade of blue (good) or red (bad). The darker the shade, the more extreme the king was. I well remember King Jehoshaphat of Judah portrayed as a light blue stripe on that timeline. In the unforgettable words of my professor, Jehoshaphat was “good, but dumb.”

How else can one understand Jehoshaphat?
The LORD was with Jehoshaphat because he followed in his ancestor David’s footsteps at the beginning of his reign. He did not seek the Baals, but instead sought the God of his ancestors and obeyed his commands, unlike the [northern kingdom] Israelites. . . . He was committed to following the LORD; he even removed the high places and Asherah poles from Judah [2 Chr. 17:3-4, 6].
That’s good, right? So why did Jehoshaphat do such dumb stuff?

The specific dumb stuff that Jehoshaphat did was to make peace with Israel, the northern half of the divided kingdom. About 60 years before, at the beginning of the reign of Rehoboam, son of Solomon, the bulk of Israel rebelled against the House of David in Jerusalem, and the two resultant kingdoms (Israel and Judah) waged intermittent border wars against each other from then on. Jehoshaphat successfully proposed peace with Israel to bring these hostilities to an end.

Now in the abstract this may have been a fine thing to do. After all, both David’s perpetual dynasty in Jerusalem and the secession of the northern tribes were God’s intention, so peace between the realms could be taken as a basic acknowledgment of this fact. But it happened that Jehoshaphat made his peace overture to exactly the wrong Israelite king—Ahab.

Ahab, you might remember, was the king of the House of Omri married to the infamous Jezebel, princess of Sidon, the queen who ruthlessly promoted the worship of Baal and persecuted worshipers of Yahweh. In the name of peace, good, God-fearing Jehoshaphat did all kinds of dumb things to win the favor of Ahab and his house.

There was the time that Ahab took advantage of his new alliance with Jehoshaphat by asking him and his army to join him in battle against Aram. Jehoshaphat was happy to go, so long as Yahweh said it was a good idea. Ahab convened 400 pagan prophets who said it would go great. Jehoshaphat knew these guys were jokers, so he asked Ahab if there was any real prophet of God around. So Ahab reluctantly summoned a sarcastic seer named Micaiah, who explained that the other gang of prophets was being used by a lying spirit intentionally sent by Yahweh to entice Ahab to his certain death. After hearing this authentic word from Yahweh that he asked for, Jehoshaphat decided to go with Ahab into battle anyway—dumb. But not as dumb as what happened next: Ahab convinced Jehoshaphat to wear his royal robes into combat while Ahab dressed as a common soldier so that their enemies would think that Jehoshaphat was really the king. Really, really dumb. So the Aramean charioteers pursued Jehoshaphat and only by God’s intervention recognized that he was not the king they were trying to kill, so Jehoshaphat survived. Not the brightest crayon in the box.

After Ahab died in that battle (as Micaiah predicted), Jehoshaphat thought that the joint army operations with Israel went really well, so he decided to launch a joint commercial expedition with Ahab’s son and successor Ahaziah. So they made a fleet of merchant ships at a port on the Gulf of Aqaba. Again, dumb—this time God sent a storm to wipe them out before they set sail.

But the very dumbest thing that good King Jehoshaphat did was to secure this peace with Israel by taking Ahab’s daughter Athaliah to marry his son Jehoram. Athaliah took after her mother Jezebel by promulgating Baalism, domineering over the men around her, consolidating power, and crushing opposition. The result of this marriage was violent and disastrous.

Jehoshaphat wisely and carefully managed his succession by designating his firstborn son Jehoram (a.k.a. Joram) as king before his death but giving all his other sons wealth and authority under their brother so that they would not be envious and conspire to take the throne from him by force. But immediately upon becoming king, Jehoram sought to secure the reign his father had prepared for him by murdering all his brothers. The Bible doesn’t say for sure if his wife Athaliah was behind this, but from what we find out about her later it seems likely that she had something to do with it.

Jehoram (again, most likely under the influence of Athaliah, following the pattern set by Jezebel) encouraged the worship of Canaanite deities at high places all over Judah. As punishment, Yahweh sent invading bands of Philistines and Arabs against Jehoram that took all his wealth and abducted all his sons but one, Ahaziah (a.k.a. Jehoahaz). Then Jehoram died of a hideous and painful intestinal disease, hated by his people.

Ahaziah took over and continued the idolatrous ways of the House of Ahab, encouraged by Athaliah, his mother. Like Jehoshaphat, Ahaziah also joined Israel in its perpetual conflict against Aram by going to battle beside his uncle King Joram (a.k.a. Jehoram). After Joram was wounded and both kings withdrew to the palace at Jezreel, both were assassinated by Jehu in his successful coup to take the throne of Israel.

Now the throne in Judah was empty, so Athaliah seized it after murdering every royal heir—that is, Ahaziah’s sons, her grandsons. The unthinkable had happened: for six years a daughter of the House of Omri/Ahab, the offspring of a Canaanite mother, a born and bred worshiper of Baal, sat on the throne of David. For six years it appeared that God abandoned his promise to maintain David’s royal line forever. In fact, it appeared that over five centuries after Joshua’s victories proved Yahweh to be stronger than Baal, Baal had regained the supremacy.

But Yahweh did not abandon David’s line or give up his people to Baal. He kept his promise to David through the most unlikely means imaginable. The wife of Jehoiada, the high priest of Yahweh in Jerusalem, stole Ahaziah’s youngest son, a baby named Joash (a.k.a. Jehoash), as Athaliah was slaying his brothers. The couple raised him in secret until Jehoiada conspired with some generals to engineer a coup that deposed and killed Athaliah and put Joash on the throne at the tender age of seven. Jehoiada then led the people to eradicate the worship of Baal from Jerusalem, killing Baal’s priest, breaking his images, and leveling his temple.

I said that God restored David’s line through unlikely means, but I haven’t told you what made them so unlikely. Jehoiada’s wife who rescued the baby Joash was named Jehosheba (a.k.a. Jehoshabeath). She was Joash’s aunt—Ahaziah’s sister—Athaliah’s daughter. Athaliah learned how to be wicked from her mother Jezebel, and presumably Jehosheba learned the same lessons. But just as Jehoram’s marriage to Athaliah corrupted him, Jehosheba’s marriage to Jehoiada saved her.

Jehoshaphat truly loved Yahweh. I haven’t mentioned the amazingly, heroically faithful things he did. He sent Levites throughout the land to teach God’s people his law. He erected a justice system staffed by judges of integrity. And in a great crisis, as Judah was being invaded, he presided over a remarkable revival that led to God’s annihilation of Judah’s enemies before its army even met the enemy in battle. But despite how much Jehoshaphat truly loved Yahweh, he didn’t hate Baal enough. He didn’t loathe the thought of becoming equal partners with a dynasty that aggressively led God’s people astray.

As a result of Jehoshaphat’s willingness to get cozy with the House of Ahab, the House of Ahab nearly eradicated the House of David. Look at this: every one of Jehoshaphat’s sons, grandsons, and great-grandsons (including Joash in mature adulthood) either died violently, died in exile, or died of a vicious disease. And for six years the House of Ahab supplanted the House of David on the throne in Jerusalem. But what rescued dumb King Jehoshaphat from being the man who singlehandedly caused the collapse of the Davidic dynasty and the kingdom of Judah itself was his goodness. His line was ultimately rescued by a daughter of Ahab who came to love the high priest who loved the God that Jehoshaphat loved. The astoundingly long-lived Jehoiada was probably already a 70-year-old high priest when Jehoshaphat began his reign. They worked together to instruct the people in the ways of Yahweh and were probably good friends. As Jehoshaphat’s dumbness lived on in his royal heirs, his goodness lived on in his friend Jehoiada, aged husband of his granddaughter.

Now allow me to take the liberty of spiritualizing the lesson of good, but dumb King Jehoshaphat.

Every person whose spirit has been brought to life by the Spirit of Christ Jesus has two houses in them, the House of David and the House of Ahab. The House of David is ruled by David’s Son by his Spirit; the House of Ahab is ruled by Satan by our sinful nature. These houses are battling for the throne of your life, the one to save you and the other to destroy you.

You know that the House of David is winning the struggle for your life not only when you see that you love the House of David, but when you also see that you hate the House of Ahab. We are not saved only by what we love but also by what we hate.

Just loving the House of David is not enough. It was not enough for Jehoshaphat. He was good, so he loved the God his ancestor David loved. But he didn’t hate the House of Ahab, and that came shockingly close to destroying everything Jehoshaphat built and stood for. So also for you, it is not enough to love what the House of David stands for; you must hate what the House of Ahab stands for. You must not only love good, but you must hate evil. You must not only love Jesus, but you must hate Satan. You must not only love righteousness, but you must hate sin. As John Owen memorably wrote, “Be killing sin or it will be killing you.”

As for one “saved, but only as through fire” (1 Cor. 3:15), being “good, but dumb” is an extremely dangerous thing. Yield to the Spirit alone and beg God for him; be good, and never make peace with the House of Ahab. May David’s Son alone sit on the throne of your soul.

(NOTE: You can read the biblical account of Jehoshaphat and his descendants in 2 Chr. 17-24 and its parallels in 1 & 2 Kings.)