Jessica Ann Liberger was a 5-week-old baby girl who made it into the nation's press. Jessica came down with pneumonia, and her father, John Cortland Liberger, described in the press as a fundamentalist preacher, prayed for his daughter. He believed that God would answer his prayer; he believed that God was the God of healing. So instead of going to the hospital directly across from his home in Estes Park, Colorado, he continued to pray. He prayed day and night. He prayed fervently. Jessica Ann died.
Liberger was found guilty of manslaughter. The judge in the case felt that justice would not be served by putting Mr. Liberger in prison, because he had five other children, and from all reports he was a good father. So he sentenced him to five years of probation, during which time he had to do community service, working as an orderly in the hospital across from his home. When the trial was over, a reporter stopped John Liberger and asked him what he thought about the verdict. Liberger responded, "Well, God is my judge. I'll give an account to him."
In that sense, John Liberger was right. Like all of us, he will stand before God's judgment seat and give an account for the way he has lived his days. In that day, when God comes to judge John Liberger, what do you think God's verdict will be?
As you try to answer that question, let us consider the story of Jephthah, a judge in Israel. When we say that Jephthah was a judge, we don't mean that he was a black-robed jurist sitting behind a desk hearing cases. The judges in the ancient world were political, military, semi-religious, charismatic people that God raised up at certain times in history to help his people. Jephthah, like the other judges, was a man of his timesand the times were not good.
The historian says in Judges 10:6, "Again, the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord." Again. This is the sixth time that they had turned their backs on Jehovah. This is the sixth time they brought in gods from all the surrounding nations. They brought them in from nations by the Mediterranean, from nations beyond the Jordan River, and even from the Philistines, their enemies. Having carted in those idols, they adopted the lifestyle that went with idolatry, including everything from unspeakable sexual looseness to the sacrifice of children.
God let them get away with it for almost 20 years. Then he punished them. He brought the Philistines from the west and the Ammonites from the east; those nations gnawed away at the borders of the country. The Ammonites felt they had a claim to the land beyond the Jordan River, so they attacked the tribes living on the east. In their brazenness, they attacked the central tribes of Judah and Benjamin.
The people, hurt by the plundering, finally came to regret what they had done. But regret isn't repentance. Regret is discovering that your deeds have consequences. They sent their regrets to God, and God sent their regrets back to them. He said: Look, you've been so interested in these other gods; let them save you. Finally, the people repented. They put away their foreign gods and reoriented their lives and worship around Jehovah alone. The text says God heard their cries, took pity on them, and raised up Jephthah to deliver them.
Jephthah was a man of his times.
The headline for Jephthah comes in Judges 11:1: "Jephthah the Gileadite was a mighty warrior." God has all kinds of leaders. God doesn't manufacture leaders like Toyota manufactures automobilesall the same model, but in different colors and with different accessories. God's leaders are unique. They're like Michelangelo's statue of David, carved from a slab of marble. Each one is fashioned by his time and background. Jephthah was a man of his times, but he was fashioned in a very difficult home situation.
By anybody's standards, Jephthah's family was dysfunctional. His father was a man by the name of Gilead and evidently a leader. Gilead had a one-night stand with a prostitute. She got pregnant, and Gilead let the prostitute hang around until the baby was born. Then he sent the prostitute packing. You don't have to be a counselor to feel the tension in that family. Gilead's wife must have seen that baby as a reminder of her husband's infidelity. His brothers despised him. He'd go out to play with them on the streets of the town, and they'd say: We don't need you! Get out of here! You're not one of us! Your mother's a whore!
I imagine Jephthah cried hot tears and fought back with his fists and feet. But no matter how many blows he landed, he could not get rid of the anger in his heart. The unwanted, unexpected child grew up to be an incorrigible youth. When he was old enough, he left the community and went beyond the Jordan to the place of Tob. The text says he became a leader of a band of adventurers. He really became the head of a gang. If the gang is attacking your enemies, they're freedom fighters; if they're attacking you, they're renegades. He had become a mighty warrior.
I've known people who were heads of gangs. They have certain qualifications. They are good with their fists. They have male aggression. They also have an anger that won't go away. It's always there, and it has to be expressed. Out of that background, Jephthah became a warrior, and he and his gang had a reputation. Everybody knew about them, even as far back as the folks in Gilead. The Gileadites knew they were going to have to fight the Ammonites, so they were looking for somebody to lead them, and Jephthah's name came up again and again. They were now looking toward the boy they had looked down on and despised. The elders got a committee together and said: Let's go up to Tob. Let's talk to him. Let's tell him, "Let bygones be bygones; don't hold old hatreds." We'll go and invite him to come back.
It must have been a delicious moment for Jephthah. Undoubtedly, some of the men on the committee were the kids he grew up with. Jephthah says to them, "Didn't you hate me?"Wasn't I the kid you drove away from my father's house?"Why do you come to me now, when you're in trouble?" They assured him things had changed. After hearing their plea to be their leader, he said: All right, I'll come. But, I don't want to fight the battle and then have you push me away again. They replied: Oh no, you come. You can be judge for life. This is a lifetime appointment.
So Jephthah agreed. He came back, this mighty man of valor, to lead the people against the Ammonites. But he was not just a man who wanted to fight; he was a man of peace. He sent a letter to the king of the Ammonites. Rather than fight over something, he wanted to talk it over. He tried to persuade the king that he had no right to the land that he was trying to claim. He argued from history, from common theology, and with reason. But if you're a king with an army and you think you can win, arguments don't really impress you. The Ammonite king kept pressing it.
So Jephthah went to lead. Make no mistake: as tough and rough as he was, Jephthah was a man who took God seriously. He refers to God as Jehovah, the covenant name, more than any other person in the Book of Judges. When he went to battle, the text says "the Spirit of God came upon him"something said of only three other judges. In addition, after he had worked out the bargain, he went to Mizpah and presented himself before the Lord. He was a man of spiritual sensitivity.
Just before Jephthah went to battle, he did something else. He went to God and said: I want to be sure you're with me. I swear to you that when we come back, if I have gained a victory, the first thing that comes out of my house will belong to you. I promise you that. He wants to impress God with what he's doing. I think the reason he did that was because he grew up among idolatry. Even though he was sensitive to Jehovah, he was also surrounded by the gods of his day. It would have been standard for a people who worshiped idols to give their children in worship to him. He was a man of his times, as well as a man that God was going to use.
So Jephthah went to battle. The Spirit of God came upon him, they drove the Ammonites back, and he won a great victory. The people returned having defeated the enemy. He was now not only a mighty warrior in terms of title; he was a mighty warrior in terms of deed.
Jephthah made a big mistake.
As Jephthah was returning from battle, he went up the long road to his house, and coming out of his house was his daughterhis only daughter. She came to her father, threw her arms around him, and kissed the salty tears that came down his cheeks. She soon realized he was not weeping for joy but for sorrow. He told his daughter about his vow; she was the first thing to come out of his house. And she, as noble as he, said: Dad, if you've sworn me to God, then you have to keep your vow. Let me have two months to be off, but I'll come back.
During those two months she wept and mourned, not only about her coming death, but because she could never be married. She could never have children. Jephthah would not have any lineagesomething for a Hebrew woman almost as bad as death. She returned, and the text tells us in the last verses of chapter twelve: "After the two months, she returned to her father. He did to her as he had vowed. She was a virgin. From this comes the Israelite custom that each year the young women of Israel go out for four days to commemorate the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite."
The awful thing about his vow is that he didn't have to make it. If he had just known the Scriptures, he would have known from Leviticus and Deuteronomy that God forbade human sacrifice. But he didn't know that. How much would you know about God, growing up the way he did? How much would you know about God, living in Tob? How much would you know about God, living in the United States?
We have churches in every community, sometimes on every corner. We have bookstores that sell Bibles. We have radio programs with an array of preachers. We have television stations devoted to preacher after preacher. But how much do Americans, even evangelicals, know about God? Not very much, if you listen to the radio, to the talk-show hosts, to the people who call in to the hosts to give the answers. Not very much, if you watch the religious television programs and the trivia that passes for religion.
How much did Jephthah know about God? Not knowing Scriptures, he sacrificed his daughter, and he didn't have to do it.
God overlooks ignorance, but ignorance can do great damage.
What do you think God's judgment is on a man like Jephthah who sacrificed his daughter? In the honor roll of faith in Hebrews 11, three of the judges, including Jephthah, are singled out by the inspired writer as people of faith. Jephthah had the kind of faith that related him to God. He was a man with God's approval.
What do you do about John Cortland Liberger? Certainly I cannot give any final judgment, but I would not be surprised if you will meet him in heaven. One of the things this text tells us is this: God overlooks ignorance, but he doesn't overlook unbelief. Said another way, God overlooks ignorance, but he values trust and belief in him.
When I first came to trust Jesus Christ, I had gone to church, but I didn't know very much. All I knew was that I was a sinner. I didn't have a ghost of a chance if God was holy, and I was supposed to stand before him. I also knew that somehow Jesus, by dying for me, could save me from my sins. That's really all I knew. That's what I trusted. And that's what gave me a relationship with God.
This helps me when I think of people in other parts of the world who are Christians. They claim to be Christians, but when you listen to what they believe, you're shocked. You could put their theology in the back of a matchbook cover. But they know enough as people of faith to put their trust in Jesus Christ.
One thing this text teaches us is that God overlooks ignorance, but he doesn't overlook unbelief. When you stand before him, he is not going to ask you how you did on the theology exam. But the text also tells us something else. Belief without strong theology can do great damage. It was true for Jephthah and John Liberger. In fact, the more deeply you believe, the more dangerous you are if you have an inadequate theology. Years ago Archbishop William Temple said: "If your concept of God is radically false, then the more devout you are, the worse it will be for you. You're opening yourself to be molded by something base. In terms of your practical life, you'd better be an atheist."
I've heard people stand up and say: "Look, I don't preach theology. I think people need to have an experience of God. I think people need to know how to relate. And so what I'm into is helping the people, when they come on a Sunday morning, to have an experience. I don't give much time to theology."
Imagine you visit a doctor. You say to the doctor, "I have a pain in my stomach." The doctor says, "Well, you need to know I don't pay much attention to medicine. I took that stuff at school, but I haven't paid much attention to it. What I'm into is a 'bedside manner.' I want people to feel comfortable around me. Why don't we just cut you open and see what's inside?" It sounds so good, doesn't it? We want to give people an experience of God. But if you have a deep faith in God and a shallow theology, you'll be giving yourself to superficiality and nonsense, and you can do great damage to yourself and others.
C. S. Lewis grapples with this in Beyond Personality. He recounts a time when he was delivering a lecture to a group in the Royal Air Force when right in the middle of the lecture, an old, grizzled R.A.F. sergeant stood up and said: "I got no use for all that talk about God. Mind you, I believe in God. I felt him out there in the desert. And if you experience God, you don't need any talk about God." Lewis could understand how that man felt.
As you take a walk beside the Atlantic, you feel the spray of the ocean in your face; you smell the salt in the air; you hear the gawking of the seagulls. Then you go into your study and look at a map of the Atlantic. That is quite a letdown. It is certainly far more fun, far more interesting, to walk beside the Atlantic than to substitute that for colored paper. But Lewis said there are a couple of things you need to know about that paper. One, it's based on the experiences of thousands of people, not just your own, and of people better qualified to analyze what they saw than you are. Secondly, if you want to get any place, the map is absolutely essential.
God overlooks ignorance, but does not overlook unbelief. However, that is no plea for ignorance. Great faith with good theology can be a benefit and blessing to you and God's people. Love God with your heart and with your soul, but love him with your mind as well. There's too much at stake not to do that.
Haddon Robinson was a preacher and teacher of preachers all over the world. His last teaching position was as the Harold John Ockenga Distinguished Professor of Preaching at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.