2 Kings 17 is one of the most overlooked great chapters of the Bible. In the first part of the chapter, the wicked nation of Israel meets with its final defeat. In the rest of the chapter, the author of Kings explains why this happened. It wasn’t due to military inferiority. It was due to their refusal to honor God. In particular, he identifies these sins:
- They feared other gods. (17:7)
- They walked in the customs of the nations that had preceded them. (17:8)
- They followed their leaders when those leaders did evil. (17:8)
- They practiced secret sin. (17:9)
- They worshiped God in unlawful high places. (17:9)
- They mixed the worship of God with idolatry. (17:11)
- They served idols. (17:12)
- They ignored God’s prophets. (17:14)
- They despised God’s statutes, covenant, and warnings. (17:15)
- They were unfaithful to God. (17:15)
- They imitated the nations around them. (17:15)
- They abandoned the commandments of God. (17:16)
- They made their own gods. (17:16)
- They sacrificed their sons and daughters. (17:17)
- They used witchcraft. (17:17)
In 17:18, we see the result: “Therefore the Lord was very angry with Israel and removed them out of His sight.” If you’re feeling in need of a shudder, just contemplate what it means to have the Lord not only angry, but very angry at you! More subtle, but no less ominous, is the thought of being removed from His sight forever.
All of this is not some mere historical footnote. We serve God under a different covenant, but it’s all too possible for us to imitate the sin of Israel. In one way or another, nearly everything on the list is something that can ensnare us. We too can destroy ourselves by imitating the people around us, worshiping idols (money, pleasure, the good opinion of others, and so on), despising the commandments of God, and ignoring those who try to warn us. In fact, it’s probably true that every day, Christians fall away from the Lord by doing exactly these things.
Israel was destroyed, but we don’t have to be. However, if we want to avoid Israel’s fate, we have to be faithful where she chose to be faithless. If we fail in this, God will surely remove us from His sight too.
Last month, the Jackson Heights church had a tent at the Maury County Fair. Coincidentally, the tent across the walkway was manned by the Mormons. One of our workers was feeling frisky, so he crossed the lane and started talking Bible with them. However, they took him aback when they asked him about 1 Corinthians 15:29, which reads, “Otherwise, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why then are they baptized for them?”
This is one of the Mormons’ favorite texts because they, unlike (nearly?) everybody else, practice baptism for the dead. They think that if you baptize a live person as a proxy for someone who has died, the dead person will benefit spiritually. Among other things, this explains the Mormons’ interest in genealogy (Ancestry.com, for instance, is Mormon-owned). They want to make sure that they know who their ancestors are so that they can get baptized for them.
When we take 1 Corinthians 15:29 by itself, this interpretation appears reasonable, even though it creates difficulties with other texts. If the dead can be saved because we’re baptized on their behalf, what happens to the requirement that we must believe in Jesus in order to be saved? This sort of problem alone should cause us to return to 1 Corinthians 15 to make sure that we understand baptism for the dead properly.
In fact, a reading of 15:29 in context reveals that Paul is talking about something else entirely. Throughout the entire chapter, he’s addressing the claim by some know-it-all Corinthians that there is no resurrection of the dead. The Stoics and the Epicureans, for instance, denied the possibility of resurrection, and their unbelief apparently seeped into the Corinthian church along with Gentile converts.
Paul argues against this worldly philosophy by pointing to the example of Christ. His resurrection affirms our hope that someday we will be resurrected too. Conversely, as Paul argues in 15:13, “But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised.” From there, he reasons that if Christ has not been raised (and therefore remains dead), the entire Christian faith falls apart.
Verse 29 is an extension of this same argument. If the dead are not raised, then even Christ is dead, and all of us who have been baptized because of Jesus have been baptized because of a dead man. This would make baptism pointless.
After all, as Paul shows in Romans 6:1-11, baptism has spiritual value because it unites us with the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. As he writes in Romans 6:4, “We were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” If Christ was not raised from the dead (because there is no resurrection), nobody who has been baptized has risen to walk in newness of life either.
Rather than being an introduction of some bizarre new doctrine, then, 1 Corinthians 15:29 is a reaffirmation of one of the most important elements of our faith. If Christ is dead, baptism is meaningless. However, if He has risen from the dead, we now can know that baptism gives us life as the Father gave Him life.
I am weary, O God, of transgression,
For the tempter has burdened my soul.
Yet by grace, I throw off his oppression
And return to Your gentle control.
I am weary, O God, of my sorrow,
Of the grief that endures day by day,
Yet Your mercy today and tomorrow
Will sustain me and straighten my way.
I am weary, O God, of this dwelling;
In the tent of my body, I groan,
Yet I trust in Your faithful foretelling:
In the heavens, a house of my own.
In any secular history book, Jeroboam II would look like a successful king. He reigned for 41 years in an age when length of reign correlated with political power. Militarily, he was one of the greatest commanders among the monarchs of Israel. During his reign, he brought the seesaw wars between Israel and Syria to a victorious conclusion. By the time he was done, Jeroboam II had conquered not only the Syrian capital of Damascus but even the city of Hamath, 100 miles further north. Not since the reign of Solomon had Israelite power reached so far.
However, there was a problem. Even though God had used Jeroboam II to deliver Israel from Syrian oppression, he himself was not a righteous man. 1 Kings 14:24 reports that he was every bit as idolatrous as his namesake, Jeroboam the son of Nebat.
As a result, even though Jeroboam II’s success was impressive, it wasn’t lasting. His son and successor Zechariah only reigned for six months before being assassinated in a palace coup. None of the subsequent kings of Israel came close to Jeroboam II’s success, and during the reign of Hoshea, the Assyrians carried the Israelites off into captivity. Under Jeroboam II, Israel prospered for a time, but because they didn’t build on a foundation of godliness, they did not endure.
We do well to remember that this same principle applies today. Everywhere around us, we see people and institutions that are apparently prospering despite their rejection of God’s will. Men who love money more than anything else build thriving businesses. Churches that have abandoned the New Testament have thousands of people in attendance on Sunday morning. Those within our nation who advocate turning our backs on God appear to be growing more powerful every year.
However, as was the case with Jeroboam II, success without God only sows the seeds of later disaster. Men who sacrifice their families on the altar of business ambition generally come to regret it on their deathbeds if not before. Churches that thrive because of a charismatic pastor and a fast-and-loose approach to the Scriptures hardly ever continue to prosper after the pastor exits the pulpit. Similarly, those in our nation who take their stand against the Lord will do no better than similar challengers have for millennia.
Sometimes, it’s hard for us to bear with the success of the wicked, especially when in our own judgment, we ourselves aren’t succeeding nearly as well. However, a longer-term perspective will reveal the truth. As Psalm 1 puts it, the wicked are like chaff that the wind drives away. Only the righteous will endure like a tree planted beside a stream. At best, the wicked can hope to be like Jeroboam II, but even being like Jeroboam II isn’t very good.
Much of the discussion about “Oceans” last week centered on the issue of congregational suitability. Content questions aside (and content isn’t the biggest problem with “Oceans”), I and many others look at “Oceans” and see a hymn that is too difficult for the congregation.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that a congregation can’t eventually kind-of learn “Oceans”. If you want to grind away at it for several weeks of new-song class, you can get it off the ground, at least for people who can read music. Non-singers will probably take considerably longer than that to get the hang of it, if indeed they ever do. Lots of hymns and praise songs are in this category.
However, just because you can slowly and painfully force a group to learn a song doesn’t mean that it’s congregational. In fact, it means that it isn’t. One of the hallmarks of congregational music is that it is easy to learn, so that ordinary Christians can quickly and painlessly begin to worship with it. An unsuitable hymn will take weeks to learn; a suitable hymn will take minutes.
I mean this literally. During my time at Joliet, I introduced more than 100 hymns to the congregation there, via a small group that met outside of the assembly. Typically, about 20 people would show up for a hymn-learning session. Maybe half of those could read music. They were good singers, but none of them were music professionals or anything like that.
After a year or two, we fell into a rhythm. We’d sing the melody together until the song leaders present felt like they had it down. Then, we’d sing parts until everybody felt like they had their parts down. Wash, rinse, repeat. Using this method, we would learn 6-7 hymns in an hour-long session. Some of these hymns were centuries old. Others, like “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us”, had been written in the past few years.
From this, I derive the 10-Minute Rule. If your church sight-reading group can learn a hymn in 10 minutes or less, it’s congregationally appropriate. If it takes you weeks of grinding, you’re trying to learn something that wasn’t written with the congregation in mind. What’s more, you’re learning one song when you could have expanded the repertoire by half a dozen with wiser song selection.
The grind method is problematic not just for its effect on the poor, suffering sight readers, but for its effect on the invisible majority. People who can’t read music will always have a tougher time learning to worship with a new hymn than people who can. The harder the music is, the more these difficulties will be magnified. It may well be that rote learners will never reach the point where they can sing an “Oceans” confidently because they are always being surprised by the rhythm. This sounds terrible, and it distracts worshipers from worship.
When it comes to worship, content is king, but even great content can be defeated by bad mechanics. There are hundreds of songs, both new and old, that have strong content and are easy to sing. If we can learn a new hymn in 10 minutes, why spend hours on one that isn’t 10 times as good?