Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth

Good morning!  Today is the second day of week eleven, reading the Bible through together in a year.  Our scriptures today are Numbers 30-33; Psalm 35, Luke 3.

When I'm very honest with myself, sometimes I'm disturbed by some of the things I read in the Old Testament accounts of the conquest of Canaan.  I understand that at times God will use one nation to bring judgment against another nation, but sometimes what I read seems like overkill.  Today's passage is like that.  Here's a sample, from chapter 31:

Armies of Israel
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Avenge the people of Israel on the Midianites. Afterward you shall be gathered to your people.” So Moses spoke to the people, saying, “Arm men from among you for the war, that they may go against Midian to execute the Lord's vengeance on Midian. You shall send a thousand from each of the tribes of Israel to the war.” So there were provided, out of the thousands of Israel, a thousand from each tribe, twelve thousand armed for war. And Moses sent them to the war, a thousand from each tribe, together with Phinehas the son of Eleazar the priest, with the vessels of the sanctuary and the trumpets for the alarm in his hand. They warred against Midian, as the Lord commanded Moses, and killed every male. They killed the kings of Midian with the rest of their slain, Evi, Rekem, Zur, Hur, and Reba, the five kings of Midian. And they also killed Balaam the son of Beor with the sword. And the people of Israel took captive the women of Midian and their little ones, and they took as plunder all their cattle, their flocks, and all their goods. 10 All their cities in the places where they lived, and all their encampments, they burned with fire, 11 and took all the spoil and all the plunder, both of man and of beast. 12 Then they brought the captives and the plunder and the spoil to Moses, and to Eleazar the priest, and to the congregation of the people of Israel, at the camp on the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho.
13 Moses and Eleazar the priest and all the chiefs of the congregation went to meet them outside the camp. 14 And Moses was angry with the officers of the army, the commanders of thousands and the commanders of hundreds, who had come from service in the war. 15 Moses said to them, “Have you let all the women live? 16 Behold, these, on Balaam's advice, caused the people of Israel to act treacherously against the Lord in the incident of Peor, and so the plague came among the congregation of the Lord. 17 Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man by lying with him. 18 But all the young girls who have not known man by lying with him keep alive for yourselves.

How can I understand something like this?  Does God command such brutality and injustice?  Even the Geneva Convention, which is a human creation and doesn't claim divine origin, would forbid practices like this!  

Don't get me wrong--it's not my job to challenge the Word of God (and that's not what I'm doing).  I simply admit that I have difficulty with it from time to time.  So, to help matters, I want to point out two things:

Slaughtering the Canaanites
The first thing is that verses one and two have God telling Moses to go to war.  That's it.  God never says how, and God never says how many to kill.  Sometimes God's purposes may involve war--but we have a tendency to take matters into our own hands.  The rest of the military instructions here came from Moses, and not from God.  The Lord never instructed them to kill women and children--Moses decided that on his own.  God never told them to take the virgin girls as their slaves--Moses made that declaration himself.  This goes to show that like King David (a murderer and also a "man after God's own heart,") Moses could be both a spiritual man and a man of wrath.  

How very much like ourselves Moses was--how very flawed and how very much in need of a Savior!

The second thing I want to point out is that we have to read the whole Bible in its own context.  What I mean is that when you read scriptures like this passage in Numbers, you can walk away feeling disgusted and embittered.  But you have to read the rest of the story.  All this is part of the depravity of the human condition, a result of sin and an example of the fallen nature of lost people.  It gives evidence that even the "chosen people" weren't good enough to claim righteousness as a badge.  It shows our need for Jesus, and for a change of heart.

Jesus stepped into a brutal world and taught peace.  He entered a sick world and brought healing.  He sees our fear and gives us courage.  He exchanges our sin for His salvation.  Through Him, we can have a change of heart.  

Declaring the coming Messiah in a world of darkness, Luke 3 says:

As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet,
“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,[a]
    make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
    and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall become straight,
    and the rough places shall become level ways,
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

 [a] Luke 3:4 Or crying, Prepare in the wilderness the way of the Lord

John the Baptist
Preparing the way for Jesus, John called those who thought they were the "chosen ones" to be a "brood of vipers."  He said that genealogy didn't make them the true Israel--but that repentant people were the real Elect.  His message was one of benevolence and peace.  He told people not to take by force, but to give the shirt off their backs.  Rather than a bloodbath, John proclaimed a baptism by the Holy Spirit.  The result of this baptism would be a change of heart.  It's this change of heart that makes our reading of the Old Testament unpalatable sometimes.  When your heart has been changed, of course you'll recoil at stories like we find in Numbers today.  You're reading accounts of unregenerate people who don't have the Spirit of Christ.  It makes you glad for the salvation of Jesus and the gift of the Holy Spirit that we have today.

Passages like our Old Testament words of warfare need to be read in light of the New Testament promise of peace.  You've got to take the Bible as a whole, and understand its scope from beginning to end.  Otherwise, you'll get turned off by many things in the Old Testament that are hard to swallow.  A balanced approach to reading the Bible, or "rightly dividing the Word of truth (2 Tim 2:15)" means letting the whole Bible speak.  It means knowing the Spirit of God so well that (for example) you can tell the Word of God from the word of Moses.  

If you're having difficulty with some of the problem passages in the Bible, I encourage you to press on.  If you find something that doesn't make sense to you in the Old Testament, turn to the New Testament for understanding.  In Acts 20:27, the apostle Paul said that he did not shrink back from declaring the "whole counsel of God."  This means understanding the Bible in its entirety, and preaching its overall message without getting bogged down by things that distract from the centrality of Christ.  In his blog, Between Two Worlds, Justin Taylor writes an article entitled "Preaching 'The Whole Counsel of God.'"  Taylor says:

D. A. Carson, in his essay on “Challenges for the Twenty-first-century Pulpit” in the new book, Preach the Word, answers the question of what Paul meant when he said said that he had not shrunk back from declaring “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27):

...What he must mean is that he taught the burden of the whole of God’s revelation, the balance of things, leaving nothing out that was of primary importance, never ducking the hard bits, helping believers to grasp the whole counsel of God that they themselves would become better equipped to read their Bibles intelligently, comprehensively. It embraced
  • God’s purposes in the history of redemption (truths to be believed and a God to be worshiped),
  • an unpacking of human origin, fall, redemption, and destiny (a worldview that shapes all human understanding and a Savior without whom there is no hope),
  • the conduct expected of God’s people (commandments to be obeyed and wisdom to be pursued, both in our individual existence and in the community of the people of God), and
  • the pledges of transforming power both in this life and in the life to come (promises to be trusted and hope to be anticipated).
(pp. 177-178; bullets and italics added)

No comments: