Remember that last time we read of a man of God, or a prophet of the Lord who had confronted Jeroboam, now king of the northern ten tribes of Israel, at the sanctuary that he had built at Bethel. This prophet condemned the king’s efforts to wean his citizens away from the worship of Yahweh in Jerusalem by building alternate sanctuaries, creating an alternate liturgical calendar, and appointing an alternate priesthood. God’s message as given by his prophet was then confirmed with miraculous signs, signs that should have stopped Jeroboam in his tracks. But, as the Lord Jesus would say centuries later, miracles in and of themselves will not and cannot engender true faith. If they will not believe the Law and the Prophets, they won’t believe even if a man comes back from the dead!
The first half of this narrative ended with Jeroboam inviting the prophet to dinner and he declining the invitation as he had been commanded by the Lord to do. So far so good.
That is important. Remember the old prophet now in Bethel knows the curse that the prophet from Judah had pronounced on Bethel and its sanctuary.
The reason for those instructions seems to have been to prevent the Lord’s prophet from succumbing to the temptation to temper his message in return for reward from the king. Jeroboam, as we read in v. 7, had offered the prophet a “reward” if, instead of returning home immediately, he came to dinner at the palace. As we will see in the remaining history of Kings, prophecy was often available for sale. It was a temptation that would undo the Christian ministry from that time to this: to shape the message to conform to the desires of its hearers and often its most wealthy and influential hearers. In the 17th century the temptation was the approval of the royal house and ministers would change their opinions on cue as the policy of the king changed. The temptation was all the more powerful because the government provided the salaries for ministers and their residences. One could lose one’s livelihood and one’s home by offending the powers that be.
As Samuel Butler (1600-1680) put it those days:
“What makes all doctrines plain and clear?
About two hundred pounds a year.
And that which was proved true before
Proved false again? Two hundred more.
The allure of conformity to the established opinion of elite culture in our sort of churches is again a form this bribery takes in our day. Just as in Jeroboam’s day there is a reward for those who hew the party line.
The motivation of the old prophet is not disclosed, but it is at least possible, if not likely, that he was acting to ward off the curse that had been pronounced on the sanctuary at Bethel, which was, after all, his home town and the place of his family tomb. [Provan, 114]
In any case, the prophet listened to bad advice just as Jeroboam had done (12:28). In both cases the advice amounted to encouragement to disobey the Word of God as that word had been given directly, clearly, and emphatically first to the king and then to the prophet. They were without excuse!
No “word of the Lord” – literally “word of Yahweh” – had come to this prophet before; we are not told that the Lord told him to lie to his colleague, but now the Lord speaks to and through the old man.
It was a disgrace for an Israelite man to be buried among strangers and away from his own home and family.
Lions were a threat in Palestine in those days and are attested in Palestine until the 13th century A.D. That this punishment was from God is indicated by the fact that the lion did not maul the body or eat it after having killed it and that the donkey remained standing there by the lion, the lion not attacking the donkey and the donkey not fleeing from the lion. All these circumstances are utterly unnatural (v. 28).
This family grave was still known 300 years later as we will read in 2 Kings 23:17.
This is not the main point of the text, to be sure, but this concern about the grave and about burial does add its witness to many other texts in the Bible concerning the proper disposal of a human body after death. Burial and entombment, not cremation, are the proper methods for the disposition of the body after death, the only ones both taught and illustrated everywhere in the Bible. Cremation here, as everywhere else in the Bible, was regarded as a sign of divine judgment not as a convenient way to save burial space or the money required to purchase it.
You may have seen the news report on Belgium’s plan to move on beyond cremation. After all, we are told, 573 pounds of carbon dioxide are released by each cremated corpse. Their plan is to dissolve the corpse in a steel chamber with a mixture of water and potassium hydroxide under pressure and at high temperature. Just the bones will be left which then can be crushed. The liquid residue can be either recycled as fertilizer or simply flushed down the sewer. The process is called “resomation,” literally “the rebirth of the body,” one of neologisms – ridiculous and chilling in turns – with which the propaganda of the Western world is full nowadays. Lest anyone be taken in by this, this is an unchristian and anti-Christian practice and strikes at the personhood of the body in the most outrageous way. Six states in America have passed legislation to permit the practice.
The most predictable thing in the world is that there is going to be increasing pressure on everyone to forsake burial and dispose of human bodies in ways thought by the elite culture to be more “green” or less land intensive. As abortion strikes at the dignity of human life at its outset, these practices strike in a similar way at its end, but the effect is the same in both cases. I am not sure it isn’t precisely the same in both cases and I am not entirely sure which affect is more profound in the long run. But there can be little doubt that cremation as a practice carries with it the loss of any living sense of the sanctity of human life, and, of course, of any sense whatever of its future, the future of the person who has died, the existence that continues beyond death. The message of so-called resomation is as different from the gospel of the resurrection of the body as flushing the liquid residue of a body down the sewer is different from a reverent Christian service of burial.
At the same time as I was preparing this evening sermon, the Beckwith’s most recent prayer letter from Thailand came to my attention. It was a reminder of what an important, impressive, and necessary witness burial is to our faith and hope as Christians. Here is the relevant paragraph.
“First of all, I need to share with you that Sophan’s mother went to be with the Lord last week. It was not unexpected due to the gallbladder cancer, but it is never easy to lose a parent…as many of you know and have experienced. I was able to get back to Cambodia in time for the funeral service – the very first Christian funeral service that this community had ever witnessed or seen. When I arrived, many people were at the center supporting, helping, and loving Sophan and his family. A lunchtime meal was served to many in the community, and then the service began at 1PM with about 100 people in attendance. The church body was all there, Sophan’s family, and many non-believers from the community; people whose lives had been touched by the work Sophan and Sopheap have been doing the past three years in Sompovloun. Several songs were sung about heaven, and then Sophan shared about the life of his mom – and most importantly how she came to faith after moving to the center a year and a half ago, and then baptizing her a few months later. Sophan then shared about the hope we have in Christ…about our sin….and our need for a Saviour. Sophan clearly shared the Gospel with all who attended. Then there was a processional to the back property of the ministry center. Sophan and some of the men from the church had dug a grave in the field in the back, and Nav Pen was buried there. (Cambodians are usually cremated, but the Buddhist temple refused to cremate Pen because she was a Christian.) Many in the church later shared how they had feared death as a new believer. They were afraid no one would take care of them….they would just be left- because of their faith in Christ. So they were very relieved, warmed, and encouraged to see the love and support poured out on Sophan and his family, and to be able to witness what a Christian funeral would look like. Praise God that in the midst of the sorrow of this earthly loss, God encouraged and blessed His Body.”
The waning interest in burial in our Western culture is the predictable consequence of the loss of Christian faith. Be that as it may, we Christians are not to capitulate but to maintain our testimony to the truth and to embody our hope at the hour of death. It is important for us to reconnect with the very significant witness that is born at the time of death in the Christian service of burial and I would say at a Christian funeral.
Think about this now. Make your plans now. Make sure your convictions are settled now. Too many of us I think are going the way of the memorial service as if somehow or another we are troubled, offended, worried, or inconvenienced by the presence of the body at the funeral. Bring the body. Let’s have the casket right here every time! The body that is and remains the person: “They who are in their grave shall hear his voice and rise.” That is our faith and our hope. For goodness sake let’s not let the environmentalists take it from us or our witness to the world.
In all likelihood the old prophet made this request in hopes of staving off the desecration of his bones, the very fate that the man of God had predicted when speaking to Jeroboam in v. 2. His hope is that the Lord’s prophet’s bones would lie undisturbed and, if his bones were in the same grave, they would be left alone as well. So this old prophet appears in this narrative as a mixture of “dishonesty, accuracy, and conviction.” [House, 189] But because his state of mind is not the point, we are provided no explanation of this man’s motivations and can only speculate.
This is the main point of this narrative as the “After this thing…” indicates. The narrator’s comment is what we have come to refer to as “the evaluative viewpoint.” Obviously a remarkable event such as this would not have gone unreported and, as we read in v. 25, the story was soon on everyone’s lips. More and more people would hear what happened and eventually the king would as well. The obvious conclusion for Jeroboam to draw was that if the Lord’s prophets – and remember, this man of God had caused Jeroboam’s hand to wither and then had restored it by prayer – do not escape punishment for infidelity to God’s word, then kings won’t either. That is the great message that is being sent here. But to these loud messages of coming doom Jeroboam turned a deaf ear.
One of the problems with translations is that it is often impossible in the receptor language to communicate the more subtle signals that are obvious in the original language and would have been immediately appreciated by those who first heard the passage read. Here, for example, the text is tied together by the two words “return” and “way.” “Return,” the Hebrew verb shuv, occurs some 18 times in chapters 12 and 13. It is what scholars call the leitwort or key word of the passage, a typical way for Hebrew writers to indicate their theme and emphasize it. The word “way,” the Hebrew derek, occurs 10 times in chapter 13 alone.
The prophet, for example, was told by the Lord not to return home by the same way by which he had come to Bethel. We read that in 13:9-10. The man of God repeats the instructions that he had received in vv. 16-17. In vv. 18 and 19 we read that the prophet was urged to “return” by the old man and, believing his lie, went back with him to his home. That “went back” is again the verb “return.” The Hebrew verb “return” occurs again in vv. 20, 22, 23, 26, and 29. Then again we have the same verb in v. 33: Jeroboam did not turn or return from his evil way. Shuv is the term for repentance in the Hebrew Bible, a turning away from sin and towards the Lord, but one can turn away from the Lord as well, as Jeroboam had done. By “turning” one seeks one or the other “way” of life.
“Way” as you may remember is often used for the manner of a person’s life. In Deuteronomy the life of obedience is often referred to as “walking in the way”. It is understood to be the Lord’s way and the way of his commandments. “The way to enter the land and to conquer it is not simply a roadway but a way of obedience. When Israel turns from the way of Yahweh’s commandments, [she] will be on the way out of the promised land.” [Leithart, 100] That will be, of course, the great climax of the story of Kings and the explanation of what happened to Israel and then to Judah. So the man of God’s turning from the way becomes a warning for Jeroboam: continue to follow the way of disobedience as he had been doing and he, his family, and his kingdom would go the way of this prophet who turned from the right way, the way of obedience to the Lord.
As we continue onwards in Kings we will have this lesson taught again and again. The Lord did not immediately lose patience with Israel. He warned her repeatedly. He gave her one sign after another to call her back to the right way of faith and obedience. He endured her infidelity for centuries. A Jew reading Kings had to appreciate that Israel maintained her rebellion in defiance of one warning after another and that she was utterly without excuse when the hammer fell. She suffered precisely the judgment that the Lord had told her umpteen times she would suffer if she did not repent, the judgment he had demonstrated to her even with miraculous signs umpteen times as well.
But there is another dimension of the great story of Kings here in chapter 13 as well, namely that of true and false prophets and of the role of the ministry of the Word in the life of God’s people. The prophet was first and foremost a proclaimer, a herald of God’s Word. He was often a more ordinary preacher of the Word, a minister in the modern sense; but from time to time he was given messages directly from the Lord to deliver to the king or to Israel. His faithfulness to that Word was a key factor in Israel’s spiritual fortunes and the infidelity of much of Israelite prophecy to the Word of God a primary cause of the people’s spiritual apostasy and eventual judgment.
The man of God had a special accountability to the Word of God as a steward of the Lord’s revelation. As someone who was obliged to know the Word of God backwards and forwards, He had a special responsibility to see through false teaching and false claims that so-called prophets might make to be speaking for the Lord. The man of God from Judah started well. He delivered the Lord’s message to Jeroboam word for word. It was so clearly conveyed that Jeroboam immediately hoped to subvert it in some way by buying the prophet’s good will. But the man of God knew very well what he had been instructed to do and did not do what Jeroboam asked him to do. That was a risky thing for a prophet to do, to deny or refuse a king his invitation. He obeyed his instructions to the letter, just as Jeroboam ought to have done.
But ministers, of all people, have to deal with lies, with misdirection, and with subtle tests. We are inclined to think that it wasn’t the man’s fault that he was snookered by the old prophet because, after all, the man lied to him and the lie was precisely that the Lord had sent different instructions. Why shouldn’t the man have believed one of the Lord’s prophets when he said that new instructions had been given? Well the answer is perfectly clear. This prophet had received instructions directly from the Lord. Until the Lord told him that those instructions no longer applied he had no right to disobey them. Arguments to the contrary are, in the nature of the case, to be ignored. What is more, he was to be savvy enough to realize that there were all manner of reasons why a northern prophet might attempt to deceive him, particularly one who lived at Bethel, the town and the sanctuary that the man of God from Judah had just publicly cursed! And to persuade a prophet of the Lord to contradict his instructions the only way likely to be effective would be to claim another revelation from God. It was an entirely predictable ploy. His actions in going back with the Bethel prophet amounted to a public proclamation that the Word of God does not have to be obeyed. If there seem to be good reasons, one can do something else instead.
But such deviations by ministers are the more serious and harmful precisely because the people look to them for example and direction. Again and again it will become clear in Kings and in the prophets, whose ministry occurred in the same time frame, that, instrumentally speaking, the cause of Israel’s spiritual defection from the Lord was an unfaithful ministry of the Word of God. That doesn’t excuse the people, of course, as they were all too ready to hear comforting platitudes instead of the sometimes biting and always demanding truth of the Word of God. As Jeremiah put it:
“An appalling and horrible thing has happened in the land: the prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests rule at their direction; my people love to have it so, but what will you do when the end comes?”
This prophet from Judah was a better minister than the old man from Bethel but neither of them fulfilled his calling from the Lord and the people were harmed and the people’s faith was undermined as a result. And how many times has that happened?
I was reading the other day the account of J. Gresham Machen’s controversy with Robert Speer, the Presbyterian leader and secretary – which is to say, director – of the Board of Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church USA. As you may remember, it was Machen’s complaint that the Board of Foreign Missions was sponsoring missionaries – such as the Nobel prize winning novelist Pearl Buck – who had no commitment to historic Christianity and nothing but contempt for the gospel of Jesus Christ. How could it be right, Machen asked, for the church to ask believers financially to support so-called missionaries who were not only not preaching the gospel but were, in fact, undermining the faith of the people who had come to be Christians through the faithful witness of previous generations of Presbyterian missionaries? These missionaries were undoing the work that had been done by those who went before. Preposterous!
Robert Speer was unmoved and defended his mission board until his retirement in 1937. Speer was not an out and out liberal. He believed in supernatural Christianity. Indeed, D.L. Moody had had a formative influence on Speer’s life. He had been planning to be lawyer, as his father, a prominent Presbyterian layman, had been. But it was under the influence of the Student Volunteer Movement, a product of Moody’s summer conference at Northfield, Mass. that he committed his life to foreign missions. He wrote to his father:
“Ever since a boy I have drifted toward the profession of law as my life work because I thought it was what you wanted me to do especially after Will entered Journalism, but I have come to a new conclusion today. I am going to be a foreign missionary…. I should feel ashamed of myself if I stayed in this country while millions of heathen perish daily, and ‘their blood is on my head.’” [Longfield, The Presbyterian Controversy, 185-186]
Under Speer’s leadership the Presbyterian Church came to support over sixteen hundred missionaries in foreign lands and became, by at least one account, “the most powerful single denominational Board in the whole world.” He was conservative enough in his theology that he was asked to write two articles for that series of booklets known as The Fundamentals, the origin of the term “fundamentalism,” now so widely used in worldwide discourse. He was active in the Keswick movement. I would say that we could say of him that he seemed in his earlier work to be much as this prophet from Judah, hearing the Word of the Lord and delivering it with conviction.
But as time went on Speer grew more and more careless and seemed less and less concerned about obedience to the Word of God. He allowed the Board to bring on missionaries who had no real commitment to the gospel and continued to expect believers to support them. He listened too carefully to out and out false prophets like this man of God from Judah did.
Alas, his later career was much more like this old man from Bethel. He was careless about the facts, refused to concede the obvious, and covered it all over with pious expressions that easily satisfied those who needed no more. He would have denied it but his way of expressing the Christian faith conformed very neatly to the ideas that were in the air in the first third of the 20th century. He accommodated his views to the prevailing winds as completely as the prophet from Bethel did in his day. Though a minister and responsible to see through the subtle tests of fidelity to the Lord, he injected into the Board of Foreign Missions a heavy dose of pure, unmitigated unbelief. Like the prophet of Bethel he still had some real faith, but also like him he wasn’t true to it.
Whatever anyone may have thought or said at the time, just as was the case in Jeroboam’s day, Speer’s Board of Foreign Missions was headed for disaster as a result of the mistakes, the infidelities of which he was guilty and the judgment that God would bring upon that church and its ministries. At present the once mighty PCUSA has shrunk to something more than 2 million members, most of whom are older. And this PCUSA, the continuing church of Speer’s northern Presbyterian Church added in 1983 the PCUS, the old Southern Presbyterian Church – so its shrinkage is more striking still. Today the foreign mission board of the PCUSA has some 200 foreign missionaries, some of whom are, to be sure, gospel-driven people, but some of whom are definitely not, working in what are nowadays likely to be called “justice ministries” or in some other form of social work. The PCA, by contrast, whose membership is less than 20% that of the PCUSA has some 750 missionaries, more than 600 of whom are permanent career workers and most of whom are directly involved in gospel work. I can guarantee you that Robert Speer would have hotly denied that his approach was going to gut PCUSA missionary interest until there was very little left, but that result was as predictable as was the destruction of Israel when she refused to repent. It didn’t take 300 years either; just a few decades before the damage had become irreparable.
In Speer’s day as in Jeroboam’s the appeal was to the Word of God, even when the Word of God was being ignored and defied. Brothers and sisters, this history can seem remote to us today – prophets and lions and donkeys – but the fact is it is immediately relevant, the very same sort of thing is happening again as it has happened times without number in the years since Jeroboam and the prophet of Bethel. Your welfare and the welfare of your children – so fundamentally tied to the fidelity and spiritual vitality of the church – depends absolutely on the obedience of the church’s ministry to the Word of God. Had all the prophets of Israel united in loyalty to the covenant and the Law of Moses, just the prophets, Israel would never have been destroyed by Assyria or Judah by Babylon. Large issues like these eventually determine the smaller issues of each and every human life and, especially, every professing Christian life. Why is it, after all, that the church has gone bad time and time and time again? Why does she never learn her lesson and why does she so easily lose her way? What makes it so seemingly inevitable that the gospel will be lost in a generation or two and that a small dwindling congregation will inhabit this sanctuary in 60 or 80 or 100 years that has almost no Christian faith left in its heart? The only answer the Bible ever supplies to those questions is this: the ministry is under constant temptation and too often succumbs and takes the church down with it.
It is an important and very interesting juxtaposition of texts we have enjoyed this Lord’s Day: a text from Romans 16 regarding false and true teaching regarding the necessary and unnecessary controversy of the church’s life; and tonight a text that describes the fall of the church of God as the direct result of a failure on the part of the church’s ministry to stand up against the forces of evil and unbelief pressing on the church of God and to remain steadfast in loyalty to the Word of God, every piece, part and parcel of that Word. Both avoiding controversy when it is unnecessary and confronting falsehood when it is necessary are essential parts of the church’s hope of everlasting blessing as they are of this congregation’s fidelity to the Word of God and the faith of the Lord Jesus Christ through the next generation and the generation after that and the generation after that. Some churches do remain faithful. We have a church in the PCA that was organized before the Revolutionary War in the mid-eighteenth century that has had an evangelical ministry throughout all of its 250 years or so. Let us determine you and I together, let us make sure our children grow up to be well instructed in these matters. We are going to stand up for the truth of God, come wind, come weather. We are going to be careless of the consequences if only we will trust the Lord, count on his promises, and do what he has instructed us to do in his Holy Word.