In Acts 17:16-34, we have the account of the Apostle Paul in Athens. What features of pagan religion does Paul agree with and what features does he denounce? In what way does he disclose the uniqueness of the Christian message?
John 14:5-11 is one of the most provocative passages of Scripture to those who hold a pluralist or inclusivist view? Why is this the case? How would you counter the criticism that it is arrogant to claim that Christianity is the only way to God.
How do we show love to people of other religions without agreeing with them?
SAMSON – SET APART UNTO GOD (JUDGES 13:1-25)
Mention the name “Samson” and what comes to your mind? What words describe him?
Our impression may be mainly negative but the account of his birth indicates clearly that he was very special to God, a God who intervenes directly into the events leading up to, including, and following his birth. Let’s read the story.
Judges 13:1-7, 24-25
1. A SPECIAL ANNOUNCEMENT (v.1-3)
“Again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord” (v.1). Israel as a nation was far away from God. They had been in a period of relative peace with other nations and as a result had drifted into an easy going lifestyle - a lifestyle that led to compromise with sin and idolatry. So God withdrew his protection and his people once again found themselves occupied by a foreign nation. God “delivered them into the hands of the Philistines for forty years”. And then God, full of grace, chooses a person by the name of Samson to begin to bring about deliverance for his people from the Philistines.
“A certain man by the name of Zorah, named Manoah, from the clan of the Danites, had a wife who was sterile and remained childless” (v.2). God in his grace reaches down into this couple’s lives. An angel of the Lord appeared to her with the message that she will conceive and have a son (v.2-3). With such a divine announcement to a woman who could not have children, Samson and his mother join an elite company; Sarah/Isaac (Gen.11:30;16:1), Rebekah/Jacob and Esau (Gen.25:21), Hannah/Samuel (1Sam.1:2), and Elizabeth/John the Baptist (Lk.1:7). Something special is going to happen!
2. A SEPARATED LIFE (v.4-23)
The angel of the Lord appears with a special message. This whole event is special; not only will Samson’s birth be a miracle but also the fact that it was the Lord himself who announced the birth – that makes it special. Samson will play a very special part in the purposes of God. He will be a Nazarite; one who is separated and dedicated to God. And this vow was to be for the whole of his life (v.7). God gave him two restrictions: no wine (v.4) and no razor to cut his hair (v.5). An additional restriction for a Nazarite vow was to touch a dead body (Num.6:6). Such outward actions were to indicate an inner dedication to God and a vow to be set apart to serve him.
And what was this service in particular?
God’s purpose for Samson was to begin the deliverance of Israel from the Philistines (v.5). This deliverance would go beyond Samson’s own lifetime. It would continue into the time of Samuel (1Sam.7:10-14) and would not be completed until the time of David, king of Israel (2Sam.5:17-25;8:1). Samson’s part in subduing the Philistines was just the beginning, but it was important nonetheless. It was the task God had given Samson to do. This is a timely reminder to us today to be faithful in following the Lord even if we don’t see instant results. We might just be beginning an important job that others will finish.
The introduction of Samson in the book of Judges brings us to a new stage in the life of Israel as a nation. It is now the Philistines who take central stage as Israel’s major enemy. They were a people originally forced out of their homeland in Greece and the Aegean Sea and who by Samson’s time had established five main cities – Gaza, Ashdod, Ashkelon, Ekron, and Gath. They were militarily strong because they had learned how to manufacture iron. But their two most effective weapons were trade and intermarriage (1Sam.13:19-21). In both ways they gained a stranglehold on the Israelites; slowly choking them to death by compromise and assimilation. Israel was being seduced by the culture of the Philistines. There is no cry of pain, no groaning under the oppression (as on previous occasions). Things were going too well for them. It was a time of affluence. Because there was no national repentance, there was no national deliverer. The people were slowly but surely losing their identity.
It is into this world of Israel assimilating into Philistine life and apathetic towards the things of God, that Samson is born. But whereas in the past the other major judges led a repentant people against the enemy, Samson by contrast will fight alone. The pressures that Samson faced make him a contemporary figure. Christians in NZ face the danger of assimilation, of being slowly and imperceptibly squeezed into the mould of the world around us.
The pattern for the Christian life is one of separation, as in the example of Jesus. We are not to assimilate with the world but neither are we to do the opposite and isolate ourselves from the world. Jesus sets the pattern by his life and in his prayer in John 17:5-19.
Read John 17:13-19
We need to be people who will refuse to be either isolated from the world or assimilated with the world but who will live according to the truths of God’s word (Philp.2:15-16).
Read Philippians 2:14-16
3. A STIRRING OF THE SPIRIT (v.24-25)
Samson was from the tribe of Dan and at that time his tribe still had unconquered territory, they were still wandering in their inherited land. They had not settled into it (Judg.18:1). Samson must have grown up with his tribe’s yearning for a permanent and settled territory. Thus his visits to the various tribal events must have stirred his heart, and God’s Spirit began preparing him for his role as Judge and leader against the Philistines.
As we continue on next week with the life of Samson, we will see that Samson’s life in a way typifies the life of Israel as a nation as a whole. Israel as a nation; born by special divine provision, consecrated to the Lord from birth and endowed with unique power among the nations but going astray chasing after the Canaanite gods. Samson typified that way of life.
But in the end we will also see that Samson still accomplished the purpose announced by the angel of the Lord who visited his parents before his birth – to begin the deliverance of Israel. What assurance for each one of us; at times overwhelmed with immensity of the task ahead of us, and the awareness of our own short comings and failings – yet God in his grace uses us – he uses you. Let’s be true to his word; living in the world but not assimilated with it, neither isolated from it, but set apart in it - living according to God’s Word.
Those of you following our series through the book of Judges will know by now that God calls and uses some rather interesting characters, who were products of their time – by that I mean people shaped by the culture in which they grew up – people broken, scarred, sinful and yet chosen and used by God to bring about deliverance of his people. Remind you of anyone?
God in his grace still uses broken people today. He uses you and me for example – what grace! In today’s story God uses Jephthah - someone who was rejected by men but chosen by God.
- THE SUBTLE INFLUENCE OF THE WORLD INTO WHICH WE ARE BORN (10:6-18)
Jephthah was a product of his time. He lived in a time when once again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord (v.6). Now for the sixth time in our series they served the Baal’s. They turned their backs on the Lord and each time they did evil, they sank lower and lower until our section today is probably one of the bleakest spiritual times in the nation’s history. They worshipped almost anything or anyone rather than the Lord. The seven pagan gods named represent some of the most perverted and depraved practices ever known to humanity (v.6f).
The Lord became angry with them (v.7-16). He handed them over to the nations; the Philistines and Ammonites, whose gods they worshipped and they oppressed the Israelites for eighteen years. Israel was in great distress and then cried out to the Lord (v.10). The Lord replied that he would no longer save them. “Go and cry out to the gods you have chosen. Let them save you when you are in trouble!” (v.14). But Israel replied…
Read Judges 10:15-16
True repentance seems to take place here (v.15-16). “We have sinned…please rescue us now.” Then they got rid of the foreign gods among them and served the Lord. And the Lord could bear Israel’s misery no longer. What grace! The Israelites now search for a deliverer.
Jephthah comes onto the scene now in chapter 11. This is the world into which he is born and lives and no doubt the pagan background influences how he behaves later in the story, in more than likely offering his daughter as a human sacrifice (11:29-40) and further on in the story the unnecessary slaughter of the arrogant Ephraimites (12:1-7).
Culture shapes us more than we care to realise, including our Christian beliefs and expressions of faith. I recently was with someone who should have known better but was expressing doubts about heaven and hell, saying that surely everyone will eventually be in heaven. I was shocked and very disappointed! It reminded me that the church’s stance and teaching on hell and condemnation is one of the main issues in NZ that block people’s interest in Christianity.
The other two issues are the church’s teaching on homosexuality and on suffering – how could a good God allow so much evil and pain? And so the subtle tendency is to water down these so-called blockages to Christianity; to make them more acceptable, appealing, less offensive. On the other hand neither do we want to become legalistic, arrogant, isolating ourselves. Jephthah too was influenced by the pagan world he lived in.
Read Judges 11:1-3
- REJECTED BY MEN BUT CHOSEN BY GOD (11:1-28)
Jephthah is described as a mighty warrior (11:1;cf.6:12). However because his mother was a prostitute, Jephthah was regarded as and treated like a social outcast. Gilead’s wife also had sons and they drove Jephthah away (v.1-2). And so circumstances beyond his control forced Jephthah away from his family and into a life as an outcast.
These are very unfair circumstances for Jephthah but perhaps surprisingly this story provides for those who feel rejected today, a dose of inspiration. Yes, he was rejected by family but nevertheless he was chosen by God. God is able to use you even if you feel rejected by others – and rejection is a real experience for many people today.
So Jephthah fled to the land of Tob (v.3). The years in the wilderness were not a waste of time but an investment. God never wastes anything in one of his children’s lives. It was there in the wilderness that he learned leadership skills that would help him immensely in the future. He learned to know something of God. His zeal for God was real but his knowledge of him was weak.
The elders of Gilead went to Jephthah and asked him to be their commander (v.5-6). And so he became not only their commander but also head of that entire region (v.7-11). This proposal of the elders was ratified before the people (1Sam.11:15;1Kgs.12:1,20). Jephthah made himself available to the Lord. And he begins his new role by taking the diplomatic approach; by sending a letter to the Ammonite king asking why he had attacked Israel, to which the king replied that Israel had taken his land away in the past (v.12-13). Jephthah responds in his letter by: Stating that Israel took it from Sihon, king of the Amorites, not from the Ammonites (v.15-22); and that the Lord had given the land to Israel (v.23-25); and finally that Israel had possessed it for a long time, 300 years (v.26-27).
Jephthah tried to solve the problem through peaceful means but the king of Ammon ignored his message and prepared his troops for battle. Then the Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah (v.29).
- THE SPIRIT OF THE LORD CAME UPON JEPHTHAH (11:29-12:7)
Read Judges 11:29-33
In the OT, the unique empowering of the Spirit was given to a person primarily to enable them to carry out a special task that God had given them. That the Lord graciously empowered Jephthah for war on behalf of his people does not mean that all of this warrior’s decisions reflected God’s wisdom. His rash vow is an example, that if he was victorious he would offer whatever came out of his front door as a burnt offering to God (v.30-40). It was his daughter, his only child, who came out dancing (v.34). When he saw her come out he tore his clothes in extreme grief (v.35). Jephthah’s rash vow brought his unspeakable grief.
The rash vow (v.30-40). Verse 31 seems to indicate the promise of a burnt offering and leads to the conclusion that Jephthah probably offered his daughter as a human sacrifice (v.31,39). His vow, made in the heat of the moment, was an attempt to manipulate God. It highlights the extent to which Jephthah was influenced by his pagan background. He was speaking here as a pagan and not someone who knew God’s truth. He had a false view of God. His ultimate problem was ignorance of God’s Word. He had a zeal for God but zeal without knowledge is dangerous. Ignorance of God is the greatest ignorance of all. He was conditioned by the world he lived in.
This sad story of Jephthah highlights the danger of spiritual ignorance. To be ignorant of God and of God’s Word is the pathway to spiritual disaster. He did not adequately know the Word of God or the God of the Word, and the price he paid for his ignorance was very high.
Ephraim’s jealousy of Jephthah’s victory (12:1-7). As in Gideon’s time (8:1), Ephraim was jealous of Jephthah’s success and possibly wanted to share in his spoils. Jephthah, as with his response to the king of Ammon (v.14-27), was to try the diplomacy route (v.2-3). Again this failed so he fought against the Ephraimites and struck them down (v.4-6). Jephthah led Israel for six years (v.7).
Rejection is something that can scar us for life. But just because certain people may reject us, that does not mean that God rejects us. We can all too often live with a sense that unless we have certain skills or personality traits or qualifications, or we be like someone else - we fall short. Or perhaps we measure ourselves by our family background, our social standing, or by our past. The result can be discouraging. We feel that without the proper credentials, we are not the kind of people the Lord can or will use – and so we become prisoners of our past and open ourselves up to the influences of the world. But we need not be prisoners of our past, no matter how difficult or dysfunctional that past might have been. God delights in taking the weak and making them strong. There is no such thing as ‘damaged goods’ in his eyes! Words of Jesus…
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” (Lk.4:18-19)