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A few months ago, I began a series on the Book of Judges by asking every one in my congregation to stand. Then I asked the people who had never heard a sermon on Judges to sit down. The results were the same in both of our worship services. Fifty percent of the people sat down. Next I asked those who had never heard a sermon on Judges except for the Gideon story to sit. Another twenty percent sat down. Then I instructed those who had never heard a sermon on Judges except for the Samson story to sit down. Another twenty percent sat down. As it turned out, only a dozen out of several hundred had previously heard a sermon from Judges on someone other than Gideon or Samson. My final question was, "How many of you have ever heard an entire sermon series on Judges?" This question effectively whittled down the troops to a number one-hundred times smaller than Gideon's tiny army when God finished sending his troops home. Three people remained standing!
The gospel is there in latent form in the Book of Judges, just waiting to be preached!
When it comes to preaching the Book of Judges, most preachers can relate to the writer of Hebrews: "I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson, and Jephthah." Judges gets ignored for a variety of reasons. Some have lost touch with Bible stories. We do well in the New Testament epistles, and well we should, but Old Testament narrative is a foreign land.
Second, we may sell short the stories of Judges, forgetting that the book is considered a former prophet in Jewish tradition.
Third, we may be uncertain about how we can preach grace and gospel in a book that a preacher-friend describes as "one dark, hoary tale." After all, scholar Daniel Block says the theme of Judges is the Canaanization of Israel. Its overall message is that God's people self-destruct when they disobey God and get their values instead from their pagan neighbors.
Last month, a colleague in ministry told me he did not want to spend time preaching Judges because he wanted to concentrate on the new covenant and on the gospel. However, I am convinced that preachers can and must preach the gospel from the Book of Judges. It is a book about God delivering his people from the mess they create. Yes, the gospel appears in Judges, but in latent form.
What does it look like to preach the gospel from Judges or from any Old Testament narrative book? What model should we use for preaching gospel-based, Christ-centered sermons from the stories in the Bible that Jesus used?
The controversy over "exemplary" Bible stories
To help us answer these questions, let's begin by exploring a fascinating controversy which raged in the Reformed churches in Holland just prior to World War II. Esteemed preaching professor Sidney Greidanus analyzed this controversy in his 1970 doctoral dissertation, Sola Scriptura: Problems and Principles in Preaching Historical Texts.
One side of the controversy featured those who promoted an exemplary approach to preaching Bible stories. Basically, they argued that the characters in these stories provided models to be imitated, that is, examples to be followed. Conversely, the sins and weaknesses of these characters served as a warning. Proponents of this approach did not reject the idea that redemptive history is a unified structure with Christ at its center, but they still felt free to draw parallels between the experiences of God's people then and the struggles of believers today. They argued that Hebrews 11 interprets the redemptive history of the Old Testament in an exemplary sense. They also cited Paul's use of events in the history of Israel as "examples" (tupoi/tupikos) for new covenant believers in 1 Corinthians 10:6 and 11.
On the other side of the controversy stood those who promoted a redemptive-historical approach to preaching the historical texts of the Old Testament. This approach became known as a Christocentric or Christ-centered approach since redemptive history, argued its proponents, is the history of Christ. He stands at its center, but no less at its beginning and end. In this approach, sermons on Old Testament stories point to the person and work of Christ, the eternal Logos who is at work throughout history.
This happens without "magically producing a line from every text to the Cross or the Incarnation." Rather, a redemptive-historical sermon will show how God is at work in history redeeming his people. Christ must be central, not human beings. In 1 Corinthians 10:6 and 11, the terms tupoi and tupikos should be translated as "types," not "examples." Paul's point is that the events of Israel's history happened as a prefiguration of the events of the messianic age. As for Hebrews 11, redemptive-historical proponents argue that just because a New Testament writer uses an element in an Old Testament narrative as an illustration, it does not follow that the illustration is the "specific intent" of the Old Testament text.
Interestingly, this was an "in-house" controversy. It took place among members of a movement known today for its advocacy of a Christocentric approach to preaching historical texts of the Old Testament. But this controversy faded due to the German invasion of Holland in 1940 and its occupation until 1945. Then, a schism in the Reformed church of Holland immediately following World War II basically diverted any attention or interest in resuming the debate.
When Sidney Greidanus uncovered the controversy in 1970, he argued for a mediating position. His starting point was that historical texts actually "preach" rather than simply relate past facts. He agreed with the redemptive-historical side that a sermon on a historical text must be theocentric, God-centered, because these texts intend to proclaim the acts of God. He agreed with the exemplary side that this proclamation must be relevant, communicating the "ethical thrust" of a passage within "the light of the author's theocentric framework." Greidanus shows how he works this out in the Ehud story in Judges 3:12–30:
The author's point is not to give moral examples but to reveal that God, through Eglon and Ehud, is at work in history, judging and redeeming his people; his message to the O.T. church is the admonition (cf. Vss. 7, 12): Do not forget the Lord your God!
Greidanus also argued that a theocentric (God-centered) sermon is implicitly Christ-centered since Christ is God.
So what view shows the most promise for preaching the gospel in Judges? I propose that the best way to preach the gospel in Judges aligns with the mediating view of Greidanus. This view finds affinity with John Calvin's "theocentric" approach, which saw no antithesis between God-centered and Christ-centered preaching. The method I propose for preaching the gospel in Judges asks three key questions once careful exegetical work has been completed.
1. What does this story proclaim about God and his relationship with his people?
As this first question suggests, the goal is to identify the theology communicated by the narrative. As a "former prophet," Judges intends to communicate a specific message from God to his people. I find one of Haddon Robinson's categories helpful at this point. He counsels preachers to look for "the vision of God" in a text—the aspect or attribute of God's character that is highlighted.
2. How does this theological message connect with the Bible's larger story or metanarrative?
This second question links the theology of a story with the gospel because the Bible's larger story is the gospel. The Gospel Coalition frames the story of the Bible like this: "God providentially brings about his eternal good purposes to redeem a people for himself and restore his fallen creation, to the praise of his glorious grace."
Along this line, Bryan Chapell's perspective is worth pondering:
Even if a preacher does not specifically mention an aspect of Christ's earthly ministry in a sermon, it can still be Christ-centered. As long as a preacher explains the ways in which God uses a text to reveal his plan, purposes, and/or reasons for redemption, the sermon leads listeners away from human-centered religiosity. Exposition is Christ-centered when it discloses God's essential nature as our Provider, Deliverer, and Sustainer whether or not Jesus is mentioned by name.
3. What admonition or exhortation does this story offer?
The first question identifies the theological message of the story. The second question connects the story and its theological message with the overall storyline of the Bible. This third question determines the ethical thrust of the story. (For those who use Andy Stanley's grid, my first two questions correspond to his question, "What do I want my listeners to know?" My third question corresponds to his question, "What do I want my listeners to do?")
This third question reflects my disagreement with a strict Christ-centered approach when it says: "We do not confront men with Christ by preaching theological ideas nor by ethical exhortations, but by rehearsing the saving events witnessed in Scripture." But this approach is unnecessarily reductionistic. When the apostles spoke of the gospel and rehearsed its saving events, they issued a call for nonbelievers to believe (see Acts 2:38–41 and 1 Corinthians 15:1–2) and a call for believers to align their behavior with the gospel (see Galatians 2:14). Sermons from Judges should not do less, especially since Judges is a "former prophet" that calls God's people to a response!
To put it another way, gospel-centered preaching does not preclude imperative. Rather, it always grounds the imperative (what you must do) in the indicative (what God has done for you in Christ). A message is sub-gospel and sub-Christian when it calls listeners to be or to do something without presenting it as a response to God's grace in the power that God's grace provides through the finished work of Jesus Christ. For nonbelievers, the call for a response centers on entrance into God's kingdom through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. For believers, the call for response centers on a lifestyle worthy of the gospel of Christ (see Philippians 1:27).
Admittedly, finding the exhortation in a story is often more challenging than finding it in the New Testament epistles since stories communicate their messages more subtly. But another one of Haddon Robinson's categories proves useful here. In addition to identifying a text's "vision of God," Robinson counsels preachers to identify its "human condition" or "depravity factor." The latter category refers to the sin that keeps God's people from responding to the aspect of his character that is at issue in the text.
Of course, knowing what to do with the characters presents a constant dilemma. Can a gospel-centered sermon cite them as examples or not? It depends. Sometimes a story's theology and its ethical thrust aligns with the example of the characters, and sometimes it does not. This explains why some character-based sermons seem to ring true, while others do not. To maintain sure footing, start with the story's theology and ethical thrust, not with the characters' behavior. If there is alignment, then feel free to point out what characters did right or wrong. After all, the context of Paul's discussion of tupoi/tupikos in 1 Corinthians 10:6 and 11 indicates that more than prefigurement is in view. The "types" to which Paul refers serve as examples of behavior for new covenant believers.
Applying the model to specific stories in Judges
Let me demonstrate how I apply the proposed model to a couple specific narratives in Judges. The goal, of course, is to preach the gospel from these stories.
The narrative in Judges 3:12–30 presents God as the deliverer of his people. Ehud's statement makes this clear: "The LORD has given Moab, your enemy, into your hands" (3:28). Typically, this story gets preached as a call to let God use your unique characteristics or weaknesses in the same way that he used Ehud's left-handedness. But the narrator gives no hint that we are to follow Ehud's lead. Rather, this left-handed man from a tribe known for its right-handedness reflects how God delivers His people. The theological message is that God delivers His people from hopeless situations in surprising ways. When I preach this sermon, I briefly talk about how this has been God's method of operation throughout history. Who would have thought that God would continue the line of promise through Tamar, a Canaanite woman who was more faithful to her culture's standards than Judah was to his? Who would have thought that God would deliver Moses from infanticide by having Pharoah's daughter rescue him and then hire Moses' own mother as his nanny? Who would have thought that God would deliver his people from their sins by coming to earth in human form in the person of Jesus and dying on a cross for their sins?
As a result of what God does (he delivers his people from hopeless situations in surprising ways), the human condition appears to be a lack of courage or a despair when circumstances seem to be hopeless. So, the exhortation for believers is not to give up on the mission God has given us when we face discouraging, hopeless situations. I will also address nonbelievers and remind them that their greatest need—as reflected in the storyline of Judges—is deliverance from their sins. God's story is the story of deliverance, and his ultimate deliverance comes through Jesus.
In the following story in Judges 4, the theological message does align with the response of the human characters. Once again, God is the hero of the story. He is the one who delivers his people (see 4:23). This time, however, the emphasis is not so much on how he delivers but on whom he uses. Barak, the Israelite general, receives a clear word from God that outlines a reasonable, doable strategy. But Barak hesitates (see 4:8). This hesitation or reluctance is the human condition. As a result, Deborah, the prophetess, informs Barak that the honor will not be his. Rather, Yahweh will deliver the enemy general to a woman (see 4:9). This turns out to be Jael, a woman with all kinds of social, economic, and technological limitations. She does not even have a clear, definitive word like Barak. Yet she has the courage to do what is right given her allegiance to Israel. A careful reading of the details leads us to conclude that God accomplishes his mission through people who take bold steps to help him. The notion of 'helping' God appears in Deborah's song (Judges 5:23).
Now what is the connection between Judges 4 and the gospel? When I preach this story, I remind my listeners that even though there is one story in the Bible, there are different stages. The events and the writing of Judges 4 took place prior to the coming of Christ and the inauguration of the new covenant. Today, we do not engage in "holy war" like the Israelites did. That was a shadow, and the reality today is the common struggle we face against the forces of darkness that set themselves up against the knowledge of God. With this in mind, I call believers to a courageous, bold engagement with the mission of God. Specifically, I say: "What God is calling his people to do in this story is to 'get in the game.' Jesus understood that. He said about himself in Mark 10:45: The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many."
Then, when I address nonbelievers, I begin by acknowledging that this story may strike them as odd or offensive. But it reflects the larger story of the Bible, that God wants to deliver you from an empty way of life. His vision for those who love him is to be like the sun when it rises in its strength (Judges 5:31a). But there's a division. God's enemies will perish. Listeners have a choice to make.
As the Book of Judges progresses, the situation in Israel deteriorates even more. While God's deliverance is still the book's overall theme, other themes emerge. For example, take the Abimelech story in Judges 9. When I preached it recently, I worked through the fascinating story and then stated the main point of the story like this: God makes sure that unrepentant people face payday some day for their evil deeds.
After identifying this as the theological message of the story, I then connected it to the Bible's larger story line. I pointed out that God honored justice and yet created a way of escape for evildoers by taking sin upon himself at the cross of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:21, 19). Miroslav Volf describes this as God "breaking the vicious cycle of violence by absorbing it." God's vengeance, then, not only delivers me from experiencing vengeance, but makes it possible for me not to take vengeance when I am wronged (Romans 12:19).
After connecting the theological message of the Abimelech story with the Bible's larger story line, I made an ethical appeal based on the gospel. To nonbelievers, I basically said: "Deal with your own evil by receiving the redemption and reconciliation God has provided. You will not get away with your wrongdoing!" To believers, I said: "Let God deal with the evil of others against you. Do not retaliate. Others will not get away with their wrongdoing."
All right then, I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson, and Jephthah. But their stories will preach! Their stories reflect and communicate the gospel. Their stories ultimately lead us to the ultimate deliverer—the Lord Jesus Christ!
Even the final story of Judges (chapters 19–21) points us forward to him (Editor's note: Listen to Steve's sermon on this text Is There Any Hope When God's People Fail?. You can also download the transcript here). The tribe of Benjamin has just about been wiped out. The women and children are gone. Only six-hundred warriors remain. Where will these men find wives so that they can produce offspring and continue the tribe? The Israelites solve the problem through bloodshed and kidnapping. What a sorry, abrupt ending to the book. There has to be something more! And there will be. One day, God comes in the person of Jesus to deliver his people from their sins. In a great irony, the person who takes this message throughout the Roman empire is a Benjamite whose heritage can be traced to the awful mess at the end of Judges—the Apostle Paul (Romans 11:1; Philippians 3:5). Once again, the gospel surfaces! It is there in latent form in the Book of Judges, just waiting to be preached!