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Oct 8, 2017

“A Final Transition, From Judges to Kings” 10-8-17

Acts 15:1-21, I Samuel 12
October 8, 2017

I’m not sure that people who have grown up in the United States or who have lived here for a long time can appreciate the beauty of this passage from I Samuel.  In Chapter 12 we see a peaceful transition from one form of government to another.  Often, such transitions require battles or wars.  And sometimes the conflict spills beyond the borders of a nation to its neighbors, creating regional conflict.
In the United States we have a constitution that supports peaceful transfers of power from party to party according to the will of the electorate.
Such transitions were not commonplace some 230 years ago when our first indigenous government was formed.  And it was certainly not commonplace and was a rare occurrence in the days of Samuel, but Samuel and God accomplished it in the nation of Israel about 1020 BC. 
What we see occurring in this chapter is the final ratification of a new form of government.  Prior to the 8th chapter of I Samuel, Israel was a loose confederacy of tribes ruled, when situations warranted, by Judges who were military leaders who called up armies from their people and organized them to defeat an enemy.  Once that particular enemy was defeated, the judge usually ruled for the remainder of his lifetime, but was not succeeded by another judge upon his death.  The appointment of another judge was not done until another enemy attacked Israel and necessitated the appointment of another judge.
But now that form of government was coming to an end.  The people of Israel had petitioned Samuel the judge and God to become a monarchy, a nation ruled by a king.  As we have seen, this request did not please Samuel or God, but God agreed and ordered Samuel to comply.
So, as we have seen in Chapters 8-11, there were several stages to the transition between the confederacy and the Monarchy.  The last stage we looked at in chapter 11 was the call of the chosen king to the men of the tribes to join him in defeating king Nahash and the Ammonites, Their response, and their following the king into battle resulted in victory over the Ammonites.
Now it was time to officially end the rule of Judges, and bring all 12 tribes together under a permanent monarchy.  So, Samuel, the last judge, called all Israel together to end the old form of government and begin a new one.
In the first part of chapter 12, we see the last judge, Samuel, ending his reign as judge.  He had the nation certify that he had not misused his office for personal gain. So his term as Judge can be concluded on a positive note.  He has served well, and as the nation ends the office of judge, they are to add his name to those who have served Israel well.
Samuel then went back over the history of Israel and the office of judge.  The judges were appointed by God because of Israel’s sins.  When they were brought into the Promised Land, they disobeyed God by worshiping the false gods of the Canaanites.
So God raised up enemies that attacked them and sometimes subjugated them.  Israel then cried out to God for help, confessing their sins, and God appointed a judge, who led them against their enemies and led them in following God, giving them victory, After that judge died, the people would return to idol worship and other sinful behaviors and God would raise up another enemy to punish them, which would lead to their crying out for help, their repentance, and the appointment of another Judge.  This cycle was repeated several times, and in telling this part of the story, Samuel mentioned some of the more prominent Judges: Jerubbaal (aka Gideon), Barak, Jephthah, and Samson.
But now the 12 tribes wanted to be ruled by a king, which Samuel reminded them could be seen as rejecting God’s rule over them.
In fact he called upon the Lord to do a miracle to demonstrate the seriousness of their act and God’s displeasure.  God made it rain and thunder that day, which was in the season when it never or hardly ever rained.
They understood that they had angered the Lord and they repented of asking for a king.
Samuel assured them that they were still God’s chosen people, and that as such, God would continue to lead them to bring glory to his name from their neighboring nations.
God was changing their form of government somewhat in bringing an end to the judges and creating a monarchy, but they needed to understand and remember that they were still God’s people, and that above their king, God was still ruler over them.
Their future prosperity and safety would depend on how well they and their king followed God and obeyed his commands, especially the command against idol worship.
As the meeting neared its end, Samuel made it clear that he was ending his judgeship, but that he was continuing on as God’s prophet to them, and as such, he would continue to pray for them and offer guidance to them and their king, as would other prophets during the reigns of various kings to follow.
Then he ended with a charge to them in verses 24 and 25 “Only fear the Lord and serve him faithfully, with all your heart; for consider what great things he has done for you.  But if you still do wickedly, you shall be swept away, both you and your king.”
A little over a thousand years later, Jesus came, and under his authority, His apostles began to preach the gospel to the Gentiles, who had no concept of obeying the commands of God.
In the early church there was a movement among Jewish Christians to require the Gentile believers to become Jews and obey all the Jewish food laws and have all their men circumcised.
Paul and Peter brought the matter to the official church council in Jerusalem.
The account of that meeting is our first or NT reading today from Acts 15.
The people of God were expanding beyond Judaism, and some of the rituals and regulations of the Jews were going to be set aside for the gentile Christians.
But the ruling of the Jerusalem Council was somewhat the same as Samuel’s ruling as the government changed and the Monarchy began: God is still your ultimate ruler, and you are to obey him, even though your local gentile and roman rulers may allow you too much liberty in certain areas.
The Jerusalem council singled out two areas in which the Gentile Christians were to be especially obedient.  Morality: no fornication, which meant they were to be completely faithful to their spouses.  (The Romans and other gentiles were rather lax about those things)
And Idol worship: the Gentile Christians were to stay away from all things having to do with idols,
They were also to be careful about food with blood in it, because that would offend the Jewish Christians.  As time went on and there were more Gentile Christians, and fewer Jewish Christians, this guidance became increasingly unnecessary.
But the guidance of these two passages are important to us.
Governments and cultures change, and the standards of what behaviors are permitted and encouraged change.  But above all our governments and cultures, God is the ultimate ruler of behavior for Christians.  He expects us to obey the commandments of our Lord regarding our sexual behaviors and being charitable to the poor and loving our brothers and even our enemies.  Our governments and cultures may be more tolerant in such matters, but God isn’t.
In the Philadelphia media market that was a company named “Hebrew National” who sold kosher hot dogs.  They had an interesting TV advertisement that ran for years on television.  It featured a man made up to look like “Uncle Sam”.  The narrator said that the government allowed certain non-beef products to be put in hot dogs and still be labeled as “All Beef Franks”.  “Uncle Sam” nodded his ascent. The narrator declared that Hebrew National did not put those ingredients in their hot dogs.  And then the camera shifted up from “Uncle Sam” and focused on clouds in the sky as the narrator said “we answer to a much higher authority.”
There are a lot of things that our governments and our cultures permit us to do and still be considered upstanding people.
But God holds us to a higher standard, that of the 10 commandments and other moral laws of the Scriptures.
We live not just before our governments and neighbors; we live our lives before God.

 

Pastor David Horner
Faith Presbyterian Church
West Lafayette, IN 47906