We would probably all agree that conflict resolution is necessary, but incredibly tricky. Emotions trump reason, stubborn loyalties trump new possibilities, and pride trumps humility—all of which adds up to the chief problem: perception trumps reality. What do you do when that happens? You join Bugh in looking at Joshua 22 to learn how best to become a broker of both truth and love.
Someone once said that perception is nine-tenths reality. What you perceive to be reality, you conclude as just that. There's a lot of wisdom, I think, in that statement, but there's also a problem. The problem is with that one-tenth. Often, we don't have the whole picture when we think we do.
When I was in my early twenties, I was discipled for a time by a man named Bob. One day Bob said, "Let's go out to lunch." We went to a place I'd never been. As we were sitting down, Bob said, "Look around, Rob. Do you notice anything different or unusual about this place?"
I looked around. I didn't see anything, and I told Bob that. He said, "Well, look a little more closely. Look at the people." We were in a restaurant bar in Dallas, and I started to look at the people. Finally, it clicked. I said, "Bob, we are in a gay bar."
He smiled and said, "You got it." Then he proceeded to tell me how every week he and his brother, Bill, would go into this bar, sit at that particular table, and use the writings of Henry David Thoreau as a springboard to engage individuals in a conversation about God and the gospel. He had an evangelistic ministry in this gay bar.
If you were trailing Bob and me that particular day, based on your perceptions, you would conclude that we were gay—especially Bob, because he went there every week.
Think about this also in terms of what happened in the murder of Jeffrey Dahmer. Dahmer died of head wounds in the prison where he was serving a 957-year term for killing 17 individuals. We look at the murder of Dahmer, the mass murderer, and our perception is that he got his due.
You may not realize that in the same year as his murder, Dahmer gave his life to Jesus Christ. He was baptized in a prison whirlpool and had been meeting ever since on a weekly basis with a Wisconsin pastor by the name of Roy Radcliff.
Our perception of Dahmer is that he's a despicable sinner. That's true. But it's true only in part. That's not the whole story. If these reports are accurate, Jeff will spend eternity in heaven with us. Perceptions are not always reality.
This is exactly what Israel discovers in Joshua, chapter 22.
Israel models harmony and disharmony.
Let me begin at Joshua 22:1: "Then Joshua summoned the Reubenites, the Gadites, and the half-tribe of Manasseh and said to them, 'You have done all that Moses the servant of the Lord commanded, and you have obeyed me in everything I commanded. For a long time now—to this very day—you have not deserted your brothers but have carried out the mission the Lord your God gave you.'"
Way back in Numbers 32, when Israel was marching through the wilderness of Gilead, these two-and-a-half tribes—the Reubenites, the Gadites, and the half tribe of Manasseh—came to Moses and said: Moses, wait a minute. Moses, when it comes to settling the Promised Land, let us settle this land east of the Jordan River. After all, God has allowed us to defeat the people who lived here, and we like this land. Someone needs to occupy it, so let us do just that.
Moses said they could, under one condition—that the soldiers of the two-and-a-half tribes continue to fight with the rest of the tribes. The soldiers of those tribes did that faithfully. That's what Joshua means here in verse 2 when he says, "You have done all that Moses commanded." You have fought, literally speaking, the good fight.
Let's continue in verse 4: "Now that the Lord your God has given your brothers rest as he promised … ." I picture Joshua with a lump in his throat, thinking about these soldiers who have fought for so long with him—seven years. Now Joshua says, "Return to your homes in the land that Moses the servant of the Lord gave you on the other side of the Jordan. But be very careful to keep the commandment and the law that Moses, the servant of the Lord, gave you: to love the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to obey his commands, to hold fast to him, and to serve him with all your heart and all your soul."
Here Joshua calls these tough and seasoned soldiers to a rigorous love for and obedience to God. If you want to be the man God wants you to be, let me encourage you to underline these infinitives here in verse 5: to keep, to love, to walk, to obey, to hold fast, to serve.
God's men go hard after God. These infinitives are terms of intensity. They emphasize a relationship with God that's characterized by a passion for God. That's what Joshua wanted from these men, and that's what God wants from us.
In verses 6 through 8, Joshua blesses these hard-working soldiers. In verse 9, they leave and head back across the Jordan River to settle the east side of the Jordan. Then, in verse 10, it says, "When they came to Geliloth near the Jordan in the land of Canaan, the Reubenites, the Gadites, and the half-tribe of Manasseh built an imposing altar there by the Jordan. And when the Israelites heard that they had built the altar on the border of Canaan at Geliloth near the Jordan on the Israelite side, the whole assembly of Israel gathered at Shiloh to go to war against them."
Wait a minute! Stop the press! In verse 6, Joshua had just blessed these men, and now in verse 12, he wants to blow them away. Why? What's going on here?
Fortunately, some cool heads prevail, and a delegation is sent on behalf of the nine-and-a-half tribes to begin negotiations. Let's pick up what this delegation says, beginning in verse 15:
When they [this delegation headed by Phinehas] went to Gilead—to Reuben, Gad, and the half tribe of Manasseh—they said to them, "The whole assembly of the Lord says, 'How could you break faith with the God of Israel like this? How could you turn away from the Lord and build yourself an altar of rebellion against him now?'"
Why were these nine-and-a-half tribes ready to blow away the two-and-a-half? Because they saw this imposing altar as "an altar of rebellion." That's what it's called in verse 16. Now travel down to verse 19: "If the land you possess is defiled, come over to the Lord's land, where the Lord's tabernacle stands, and share the land with us. But do not rebel against the Lord or against us by building an altar for yourselves other than the altar of the Lord our God."
Building a second altar amounted to apostasy, and the nine-and-a-half were convinced that the two-and-a-half had lapsed into apostasy. Why is this a problem? Let's go back to Deuteronomy 12.
We need to look at several passages in the Pentateuch as we travel through the Book of Joshua to get a sense of the history and the why behind some of the things that are happening here in Joshua 22. Notice Deuteronomy 12:10. Here Moses is speaking about the day that has come in Joshua 22, when they will cross and possess the land:
But you will cross the Jordan and settle in the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, and he will give you rest from all your enemies around you so that you will live in safety. Then to the place the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his Name [early on that was the tabernacle; then it became the temple]—there you are to bring everything I command you.
Then in verse 13, it says, "Be careful not to sacrifice your burnt offerings anywhere you please. Offer them only at the place the Lord will choose in one of your tribes, and there observe everything I command you."
Why did God do this? Because God knows our tendency to idolatry. So to maintain both purity on the one hand and unity on the other—and purity and unity feed each other—God knows that he needs to do something with these diverse 12 tribes. So he stipulates that their worship will be centralized in one place, in one location, in a location he will choose. That will keep them from lapsing into idolatry and apostasy. According to Deuteronomy 12, there's to be only one altar, not two or three.
Israel models the principles of healthy conflict resolution.
Let's go back to Joshua 22. Let's just assume that some day you might experience conflict. If that's the case, follow what's going on here. Notice that when the nine-and-a half tribes had a problem with the two-and-a-half, who did they go to? They went to the two-and-a-half. They didn't go to anyone else. Before they attacked them, they talked to them.
If I have a problem with Gary, my responsibility is to go to Gary, not to Dan, about my problem with Gary. If I go to Dan about my problem with Gary, that's triangulating, and triangulating is of the Devil. Now this isn't to say we don't get the input of others in difficult situations. But this does illustrate or imply that we need to be careful about gossip. I define gossip as sharing a problem with someone who's not a part of the solution. Let me encourage you to do as the nine-and-a-half tribes did.
Matthew 18:15 says, "If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you." That's what the nine-and-a-half do here. If they hadn't taken the time to talk to them, they would have simply wiped them out. Isn't that often what we do?
Look at how the two-and-a-half tribes respond. Let's pick it up in verse 21:
Then Reuben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh replied to the heads of the clans of Israel: "The mighty One, God, the Lord! The Mighty One, God, the Lord! He knows! And let Israel know if there has been rebellion or disobedience to the Lord, do not spare us this day. If we have built our own altar to turn away from the Lord and to offer burnt offerings and grain offerings, or to sacrifice fellowship offerings on it, may the Lord himself call us to account.
No! We did it for fear that some day your descendants might say to ours, 'What do you have to do with the Lord, the God of Israel? The Lord has made the Jordan a boundary between us and you—you Reubenites and Gadites! You have no share in the Lord.' So your descendants might cause ours to stop fearing the Lord.
That is why we said, 'Let us get ready and build an altar—but not for burnt offerings or sacrifices.' On the contrary, it is to be a witness between us and you and the generations that follow, that we will worship the Lord at his sanctuary."
So why did the two-and-a-half tribes build this second altar? To make sure the nine-and-a-half left a light on. They didn't build it as a place of worship but as a reminder to these nine-and-a-half tribes that there better not come a time when they say, "Sorry, you dudes east of the Jordan. There ain't no room at the inn anymore."
Now think about what this says in terms of perceptions. The tribes west of the Jordan added two plus two, as we often do, and what did they get? They got five. What they perceived wasn't complete reality. Someone fails to say hello to you, they fail to call you, they don't send you a Christmas card, and you conclude either they're unfriendly or they don't like you.
Someone lives in a big house, another in a little house. Someone drives a new car, someone else drives an old car. Someone dresses up, another dresses down. Someone goes into a gay bar, someone builds an altar. People, let's give one another some slack. Let's distinguish between our perceptions and reality and understand that sometimes, and often, there's a difference.
Let me make another point about conflict resolution, this time in terms of what the two-and-a-half tribes say in verses 21 through 27: when they are confronted by the nine-and-a-half, they don't get defensive. They don't lash back. They don't wilt in inferiority.
Let me encourage you to do likewise, to follow their good lead. Let me encourage you to treat criticism as a friend, not an enemy. If you do, not only will you grow spiritually and learn from it, but you'll be a breath of fresh air to the people around you. Remember Proverbs 27:6: "Faithful are the wounds of a friend."
Israel models a happy ending.
As we would expect, then, this very fragile political situation in Joshua 22 ends happily. Let's pick it up in verse 30:
When Phinehas, the priest, and the leaders of the community—the heads of the clans of the Israelites—heard what Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh had to say, they were pleased. And Phinehas, son of Eleazar, the priest, said to Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh, "Today we know that the Lord is with us because you have not acted unfaithfully toward the Lord in this matter."
Why did this potentially explosive situation turn out so well? Yes, the nine-and-a-half tribes were direct, and, yes, the two-and-a-half tribes weren't defensive. But I think there are a couple of other things here that are more fundamental, more critical to the issue. I think this chapter is not only a warning against apostasy, but it becomes also a model of unity. Let me suggest that the remarkable unity here in Joshua 22 is the result of two fundamental commitments. If we're going to be the people of God who are characterized by the unity of God, then these two fundamental commitments must mark us as well.
First, we must have a mutual commitment to the truth. As I read this chapter, I am so impressed by how all twelve tribes take these infinitive verbs in verse 5 very seriously. Do you? Are you a person intent on loving, walking, obeying, holding fast, and serving God with all your heart?
I'm not going to be lots of things, but if there's one thing I want to be, it's a broker of the truth. Will you join me in that? Let's be men and women who are brokers of truth in this relativistic culture. A mutual commitment to the truth goes a long way to promoting unity and harmony and minimizing conflict within the body of Christ. That has a spill-over effect in our culture as well. Truth is a basis for, and truth gives birth to, harmony.
There's a second commitment, a second reason this difficult situation turned out so well: a mutual commitment to love on the part of all of these tribes. People who elevate truth above love don't understand truth. In 1 Timothy 1:5, Paul says, "The goal of our instruction is love." The goal of our truth, the goal of our command is love.
In the middle of verse 19, notice what they say: "If the land you possess is defiled, come over to the Lord's land where the Lord's tabernacle stands, and share the land with us." What a generous offer. What an expression of love. The land had already been divided. But if you don't like this land, have some of ours. I think we see love on the part of the two-and-a-half tribes in verses 22 and 23 when they essentially say, "Hey, if we're in sin, then God destroy us, because we don't want to defile his name, nor do we want to hurt you." That's love.
These tribes had their differences. This situation was complicated, complex, and difficult. Yet, in spite of their differences, in spite of the misunderstanding, there was a mutual commitment to love here.
Love is not a function of the absence of problems or differences. It's a function of our commitment, which is an act of the will to seek one another's highest good.
To paraphrase Romans 12:10: Love is honoring and preferring one another. Let's be people who honor and prefer one another. That's love. It's listening to one another. It's going out of our way for one another. It's being patient with one another, and it's forgiving one another over and over. That's Joshua 22. That's what characterized the relationship of Jonathan and David—a relationship that had everything in the world going against it.
That's what should and must characterize our relationships in the body of Christ: a mutual commitment to love. Let's be brokers of truth, and let's be brokers of love. That's how we build unity. It's a commitment to both righteousness and relationships.
Be careful about this. If you elevate truth above love, you will lose your audience and people will run from you. But if you elevate love above truth, you will lose your message, and people won't respect you. You will have no backbone. But if we go hard after both, notice the happy result in verse 31. Phinehas says, "Today we know that the Lord is with us." When we are committed to both truth and love, unity is the happy result. As this verse points out, this God-given unity manifests the presence of God. When you and I have these twin commitments, when we're brokers of truth and brokers of love, we manifest the presence of God. We will be able to say we know the Lord is with us because we're unified.
For your reflection:
Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul?
Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach?
Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers?
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart?
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points?
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers?
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers?
Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it? (For help on what may require credit, see "Plagiarism, Schmagiarism".
Rob Bugh is pastor of Wheaton Bible Church in Wheaton, Illinois.