Sermon for Sunday, January 8th, 2023 at First Presbyterian Church at Unionville, NY (BPC)
Old Testament reading:
[Pro 18:13-17 ESV] 13 If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame. 14 A man’s spirit will endure sickness, but a crushed spirit who can bear? 15 An intelligent heart acquires knowledge, and the ear of the wise seeks knowledge. 16 A man’s gift makes room for him and brings him before the great. 17 The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.
New Testament reading:
[Rom 10:1-4 ESV] 1 Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. 2 For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. 3 For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. 4 For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.
[Jhn 7:40-52 ESV] 40 When they heard these words, some of the people said, “This really is the Prophet.” 41 Others said, “This is the Christ.” But some said, “Is the Christ to come from Galilee? 42 Has not the Scripture said that the Christ comes from the offspring of David, and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David was?” 43 So there was a division among the people over him. 44 Some of them wanted to arrest him, but no one laid hands on him. 45 The officers then came to the chief priests and Pharisees, who said to them, “Why did you not bring him?” 46 The officers answered, “No one ever spoke like this man!” 47 The Pharisees answered them, “Have you also been deceived? 48 Have any of the authorities or the Pharisees believed in him? 49 But this crowd that does not know the law is accursed.” 50 Nicodemus, who had gone to him before, and who was one of them, said to them, 51 “Does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does?” 52 They replied, “Are you from Galilee too? Search and see that no prophet arises from Galilee.”
[Jos 22:10-34 ESV] 10 And when they came to the region of the Jordan that is in the land of Canaan, the people of Reuben and the people of Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh built there an altar by the Jordan, an altar of imposing size. 11 And the people of Israel heard it said, “Behold, the people of Reuben and the people of Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh have built the altar at the frontier of the land of Canaan, in the region about the Jordan, on the side that belongs to the people of Israel.” 12 And when the people of Israel heard of it, the whole assembly of the people of Israel gathered at Shiloh to make war against them. 13 Then the people of Israel sent to the people of Reuben and the people of Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh, in the land of Gilead, Phinehas the son of Eleazar the priest, 14 and with him ten chiefs, one from each of the tribal families of Israel, every one of them the head of a family among the clans of Israel. 15 And they came to the people of Reuben, the people of Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh, in the land of Gilead, and they said to them, 16 “Thus says the whole congregation of the LORD, ‘What is this breach of faith that you have committed against the God of Israel in turning away this day from following the LORD by building yourselves an altar this day in rebellion against the LORD? 17 Have we not had enough of the sin at Peor from which even yet we have not cleansed ourselves, and for which there came a plague upon the congregation of the LORD, 18 that you too must turn away this day from following the LORD? And if you too rebel against the LORD today then tomorrow he will be angry with the whole congregation of Israel. 19 But now, if the land of your possession is unclean, pass over into the LORD’s land where the LORD’s tabernacle stands, and take for yourselves a possession among us. Only do not rebel against the LORD or make us as rebels by building for yourselves an altar other than the altar of the LORD our God. 20 Did not Achan the son of Zerah break faith in the matter of the devoted things, and wrath fell upon all the congregation of Israel? And he did not perish alone for his iniquity.'” 21 Then the people of Reuben, the people of Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh said in answer to the heads of the families of Israel, 22 “The Mighty One, God, the LORD! The Mighty One, God, the LORD! He knows; and let Israel itself know! If it was in rebellion or in breach of faith against the LORD, do not spare us today 23 for building an altar to turn away from following the LORD. Or if we did so to offer burnt offerings or grain offerings or peace offerings on it, may the LORD himself take vengeance. 24 No, but we did it from fear that in time to come your children might say to our children, ‘What have you to do with the LORD, the God of Israel? 25 For the LORD has made the Jordan a boundary between us and you, you people of Reuben and people of Gad. You have no portion in the LORD.’ So your children might make our children cease to worship the LORD. 26 Therefore we said, ‘Let us now build an altar, not for burnt offering, nor for sacrifice, 27 but to be a witness between us and you, and between our generations after us, that we do perform the service of the LORD in his presence with our burnt offerings and sacrifices and peace offerings, so your children will not say to our children in time to come, “You have no portion in the LORD.”‘ 28 And we thought, ‘If this should be said to us or to our descendants in time to come, we should say, “Behold, the copy of the altar of the LORD, which our fathers made, not for burnt offerings, nor for sacrifice, but to be a witness between us and you.”‘ 29 Far be it from us that we should rebel against the LORD and turn away this day from following the LORD by building an altar for burnt offering, grain offering, or sacrifice, other than the altar of the LORD our God that stands before his tabernacle!” 30 When Phinehas the priest and the chiefs of the congregation, the heads of the families of Israel who were with him, heard the words that the people of Reuben and the people of Gad and the people of Manasseh spoke, it was good in their eyes. 31 And Phinehas the son of Eleazar the priest said to the people of Reuben and the people of Gad and the people of Manasseh, “Today we know that the LORD is in our midst, because you have not committed this breach of faith against the LORD. Now you have delivered the people of Israel from the hand of the LORD.” 32 Then Phinehas the son of Eleazar the priest, and the chiefs, returned from the people of Reuben and the people of Gad in the land of Gilead to the land of Canaan, to the people of Israel, and brought back word to them. 33 And the report was good in the eyes of the people of Israel. And the people of Israel blessed God and spoke no more of making war against them to destroy the land where the people of Reuben and the people of Gad were settled. 34 The people of Reuben and the people of Gad called the altar Witness, “For,” they said, “it is a witness between us that the LORD is God.”
This is a particularly applicable text. There is much to learn and apply in our own lives. But, we have to be careful. The text is descriptive, not normative. That means, it describes what happened; it doesn’t tell us much about who was in the right and who was in the wrong. Not explicitly anyways. But with some discernment we may be able to figure out some moral lessons from the text.
i. They acted quickly to fix the issue.
Ephesians 4:26 – “Do not let the sun go down on your anger.”
When a problem arises, address it, immediately!
When someone sins against you, Matthew 18 says, go speak to him. If he listens, you have gained your brother.
The alternative tends to be to dwell on the issue, and for it to ruin not only your day, but your week, your month, or even more.
And then, you grow in bitterness. Sinking ever deeper into suggestions from the devil that everyone is out to get you.
Avoid this. Act quickly to address such issues and seek peace.
ii. They investigated
The Western tribes didn’t send their army, they sent Phinehas, the son of Eleazar the high priest and a delegation of chiefs, one from each tribe.
Sending a delegation implies that you want a conversation. You have things to say, but you also want to listen.
And the investigation seeks to bear out the truth.
Proverbs warns us, “17 The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.”
And John 7:51 says, “Does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does?”
The Western tribes had heard (and the source is unnamed) that the Eastern tribes had built an altar. The message just told that fact, it didn’t state the intentions they had in building the altar. But even so, the story first comes to you as “the builders must have sinful intentions.” So you need to hear the other side of the story.”
Investigation is necessary.
In civil trials and in ecclesiastical trials, evidence is produced, testimonies given, FROM BOTH SIDES (or ALL SIDES) before a verdict is reached.
So we should praise the Western tribes for seeking to investigate. And we should remember to do the same.
iii. They were willing to hear.
Similarly, they were willing to hear. That’s what they came across the Jordan for. To listen.
If you seek to heal a rift between yourself and another, but only desire to TALK and not to LISTEN, then you don’t really desire to heal the rift, you DESIRE to have things your way.
The Christian way is different from the way of the world. We are to be MEEK. We are to listen. And we are to forgive.
There is much brokenness in this world. Brokenness even between family members who will not speak to each other. And there is divorce as well. And, while these issues, do effect Christians as well as secular people, it strikes me that AS CHRISTIANS we have a tool which the secular world does not know or implement. That is FORGIVENESS. Because we have a savior who has forgiven us, we are to forgive the sins of others. And if it were not for this fact, if it were not for what Christ had done for us, we would be far less forgiven. But, knowing Christ and His love, we have hope for reconciliation between people.
So let us listen, meekly, and forgive, greatly.
iv. They were ready to use discipline.
Then, we find that the Western tribes are to praised for being ready to use discipline.
We just spoke about meekness, and not we are speaking about discipline!
This is Teddy Roosevelt’s famous phrase: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.”
There is some similarity with church discipline. Elders are to be meek, no doubt, but when necessary they are to use the tools at their disposal and seek to win back a brother through use of church discipline. Not indeed to club them on the head, but more like a shepherd’s staff, to give them a swift “tap” to encourage them not to drink bitter water.
The Western Tribes were presumably ready if necessary to even go to war against their brethren in the East. And the reason is stated: “if you too rebel against the Lord today then tomorrow he will be angry with the whole congregation of Israel.” They had learned that God punishes MANY over the sin of a FEW. The sin at Peor is mentioned as an example. This was when, in the book of Numbers, some Israelites fell into worshiping the gods of the Moabites and the Lord put to death those were were guilty. And the text mentions Achan who stole from the treasury and brought disaster upon Israel in the battle of Ai.
The warning is clear: your sin impacts others. No doubt this is true. All the more reason to quickly repent and ask for forgiveness.
So we’ve been saying positive things about the Western tribes. Now the negative. And I find this to be the case – there is almost always sin from both parties to a dispute. This isn’t to discount what the major sin might be, but only to recognize total depravity and our reliance on the Lord. In seeking reconciliation, we MUST understand that we are sinners too. Don’t go to your brother saying “you’ve sinned against me” and I would never do that. But think “you’ve sinned against me” and I have done the same many times. And be ready to forgive as you have been forgiven.
So the negatives. And there is basically one.
i. Judgmental Attitude
While the Western tribes are to be praised for their prudence, there is a serious gap that remains. It is their judgmental attitude. They came to their brethren with their minds seemingly already made up.
They said, in verse 16, “What is this breach of faith that you have committed against the God of Israel in turning away this day from following the Lord by building yourselves an altar this day in rebellion against the Lord?
See, they call it is a “breach of faith.” They don’t stop to think of alternatives. They have jumped to conclusions.
Here we have a caution about first impressions. Don’t “jump to conclusions.” Don’t REACT until you have all the FACTS.
Remember that sermon I gave on charity last summer? Let us be charitable. When we see something wrong, don’t immediately jump to the conclusion that “I’ve been wronged,” “this person intentionally set out to hurt me,” etc. I think that is rarely the case. Most commonly, because we are sinners and live in a sinful world, there may be bad consequences even from our good intentions.
They have displayed “zeal without knowledge.” “Zeal without knowledge” is a phrase Paul uses in Romans 10:2. There it refers to the Jews who are zealous to follow the law of God, but don’t KNOW God. They don’t recognize Christ as the messiah.
What good does zeal have unless it is matched with knowledge? If a person is injured in the wilderness and you are zealous to reach them with your 4-wheeler, but you do not know the terrain and drive off of a cliff, then there will be two people in need.
Perhaps the spokesperson for “zeal without knowledge” is Wile E. Coyote. By the way his name is “Wile.” Middle name is E. And it turns out it is an abbreviate of Ethelbert. Wile Ethelbert Coyote. Anyways, he desires beyond all desire to eat the road runner. But this zeal outweighs his knowledge of the proper use of the Acme corporation’s equipment. And the zeal has put a fog on his mind so that he forgets about his previously thousand failures.
Can we recognize such stubborn zealousness in ourselves?
Well, let us look also at the Eastern tribes, and some positives and negatives and see what we can learn there.
These Eastern Tribes, you will recall, in the last section were PRAISED for their faithfulness. Now, so quickly, they seem to be getting into trouble!
So we will look at their negatives first, and then their positives.
On the negative side, they did something which they should have known was likely to cause trouble. They had actions ill thought out.
i. Actions ill thought out.
Calvin says: “they sinned not lightly in attempting a novelty, without paying any regard to the high priest, or consulting their brethren, and in a form which was very liable to be misconstrued.”
There was a law, in Exodus 20:24, that prohibited their being more than one altar for sacrifices.
Naturally, when the East builds an altar, the West is likely to think it is for sacrifices. And they would think this competes with THE altar, and sets up opposition to the High Priest and the rest of Israel, and sets up opposition to God.
Yes, the Western Tribes “jumped to conclusions” but it is as if the Eastern Tribes pushed them to jump.
So there is a warning here for us not to facilitate the sins of others. We are to be careful with our actions. The primary example that comes to my mind is with alcohol. If someone you know has a drinking problem—or had one in the past—you would be wise not to offer them alcohol. It isn’t in itself a sin to offer someone alcohol—you may work as a bartender or waitress without moral qualms—but you should be careful not to set up others on a path towards sin. That is what the East has done with the West with their actions ill thought out.
They had “zeal without knowledge” as well. The zeal of the Eastern tribes was to ensure that future generations would remember the Lord. So the altar was not for offerings, but to be a witness and reminder for the people to perform the service of the Lord. But in their zeal to set up this reminder, they failed to even notify the High Priest.
At your own jobs, would you make critical decision without consulting your boss? Not a good idea! I am a proponent of decision-making at the local (even individual) level, but there are times where authorities are to be consulted, whether your boss at work, or the head of the household at home.
Let us have zeal for the Lord, but let it not cloud our judgment.
So we come to the positives of the Eastern tribes.
Their zeal itself is a positive. And their true purpose in building an altar is a positive.
They explain to the delegation that this is not an altar to “turn away from the Lord” but an altar to remember Him, “to be a witness between us and you, and between our generations after us.”
And that is a good thing. We all should remember the Lord, even setting up reminders (say in our phone) to pray at a certain time.
Another positive is that “their conscience is clear.” See in their response they say “The Mighty One, God, the LORD! The Might One, God, the Lord! He know!”
He knows what they have done. And they know He is mighty. Yet, because they are confident that they have not sinned in the building of this altar, they need not fear the wrath of God for its building. We should seek the same in our decision-making. Do what is right in the eyes of the Lord. Do not seek “pragmatic” answers that “work,” but seek Biblical answers and actions that give glory to God.
III. Peace between East and West
What then in the result of this whole affair?
Ultimately, it is that there is peace between East and West.
After the Eastern Tribes explain their purposes, we find that Phinehas the priest and the chiefs of the West found that “It was good in their eyes.”
What a relief! And what a release of the tension growing between the two sides.
Since we have seen that there is sin on both sides, and it easily could have blown up into civil war, we must credit the Lord with keeping the peace. In fact, the text does the same. It is says “Today we know that the Lord IS IN OUR MIDST.”
The Lord saw this through, and He is to be praised. And when we have peace and reconciliation with our brother, we ought to praise the Lord and acknowledge His sovereign role in the situation. God is in the midst of them. One minister says: “The word picture here is really profitable. Here are two sides, seemingly severed by a rebellious and insulting act. But there, between the two sides is Jehovah holding them together.”
Indeed what hope do we have for fellowship but in the Lord holding us together? Our common bond is Faith in Jesus Christ. We are all of various ages. Have various interests. But what we share in common is the Lord. That is why we are a church.
And everyone of us is a sinner. We jump to conclusions, we misjudge, we misspeak, we make mistakes, we sin. And what fellowship would there be but for the Biblical concept of forgiveness. That is how we stay bonded in fellowship. We forgive one another. And that because we all share in the greatest act of forgiveness, of Jesus Christ’s death on the cross and the consequent forgiveness of sins. And if the Lord can forgive us wretched sinners we have sinned against Him in large measure, how we can we not forgive those who have sinned against in some frankly smaller way.
Let us then seek peace, forgiving one another in the name of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ. Amen.