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Author:Rev. Reuben Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Mt. Nasura
 Mt. Nasura, Western Australia
Preached At:Pilgrim Canadian Reformed Church
 London, Ontario
Title:An Unlikely Saviour
Text:Judges 3:7-11 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Our Salvation

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Ps 75:1,2,6                                                                                         

Ps 97:4,5

Reading – Judges 2; Hebrews 12:1-11

Ps 115:1,2,4,5,6

Sermon – Judges 3:7-11

Hy 52:1,2,4

Hy 81:1,2,3,4,7
* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved in our Lord, one thing that preachers must do is preach Jesus Christ. That single activity needs to be right at the top of every minister’s job description. Because it’s what we’re commanded in Scripture! We have the example of the apostle Paul, who said to the Corinthians, “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2). A preacher is under divine compulsion to preach the message of Christ—for where would be we, without Him? He’s our righteousness, our salvation, our life!

            Now sometimes it seems pretty straightforward, that activity of preaching Christ. You open the letters of Paul, you take a passage from the four gospels, and it nearly hops into your lap. In almost every paragraph you can find the message of Christ: “No problem preaching Christ this week,” the preacher says to himself.

            But other times, this activity becomes very hard. It’s not so clear, the connection to the cross. Sure, we know that Christ’s footprints are found on every page of the Bible, Old Testament included. As Jesus once said about the law and prophets, “These are the Scriptures that testify about me” (Jn 5:39, NIV). They testify about him. But how exactly? Where is He in those ancient laws and regulations? Or where is He in those stories about long ago kings and battles? There are texts that can make a preacher scratch his head, and wonder, “Can’t I just skip it this week? Could I maybe leave Christ out of this one? Would anyone notice?”

Yet if a preacher takes that command seriously, if he understands just how important Christ is, then he’ll never leave Him out. He’ll work hard to preach the cross from each and every passage. Because at the end of the day, we need to hear about our Saviour. We might have all kinds of expectations for the Sunday sermons, but according to Scripture, there’s one that’s non-negotiable. Has Jesus been lifted up? Has the cross been preached?

So we come to Othniel in Judges 3. What about him? What does this old judge of Israel have to say about the gospel of salvation in Jesus our Lord? Let’s then open our text, as: 

            God graciously raises up Othniel as the first judge for Israel:

1)     Israel’s evil of idolatry

2)     God’s judgment through oppression

3)     Othniel’s work of deliverance 

1)     Israel’s evil of idolatry: The book of Judges begins on a note of trouble. Joshua has died. For decades he’d been the leader, as Israel conquered and divided the Promised land. Still, they weren’t able to drive out their enemies completely, there were pockets of resistance. So with Joshua dead, who’d lead them into these last battles? At the start of Judges, you can almost sense the Israelites lose their momentum.

And without a faithful leader, the people also aren’t far from anarchy. That becomes one of the ugly themes in Judges, “In those days, there was no king, and everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” When God takes away his restraining hand on sinners, when there’s no authority to keep us in line, it’s all but certain that moral disaster is about to take place.

Chapter 2 describes the pattern repeated so often in this book—prepares us for the worst, if you will. The people would do evil in God’s sight, usually by serving the Baals. So the LORD would chastise Israel by sending the nations against them. Yet after a period of discipline, God’s people would cry out, and He’d have mercy. The LORD would save by raising up a judge, someone to beat back the enemy, and provide godly direction. But no sooner than he was dead, and the people would fall again into sin and idolatry. This is how it went, time after time: a vicious, almost hopeless cycle!

In this book, we find the record of twelve judges altogether, six major, and six minor—and there were probably more. Keep in mind that when we read about a time of peace under this or that judge, it doesn’t mean all Israel was united under that one leader. Often a judge fought the enemies in just one region of the land; peace in one area didn’t mean peace in another.

            All in all, this was hardly the situation the people imagined when they crossed the Jordan, many years ago now. It was a prosperous and fertile land, sure, but where was the peace and security they were all hoping for? Good crops aren’t worth a whole lot if they’re always being stolen or burned!

            We get a hint at God’s reason for this, earlier in chapter 3. There were a number of pagan people in and around Palestine, and this is why: “These are the nations which the LORD left… that He might test Israel by them, to know whether they would obey the commandments of the LORD” (vv 1,4). Also in this time of tenuous peace, the LORD had a purpose. He was testing his people, refining them. How will they respond to their enemies and pagan neighbours? What will Israel do to handle this disappointment, or that frustration? Would they trust and obey?

Beloved, isn’t it so often in the hardships of life that our true character comes out? It’s one thing to be richly blessed, to find success, and see our plans work out just so. But what about when there’s a snag, setback, or sorrow? Or what about when there’s a lure into some evil? Isn’t it then that we realize we have so much to learn still as Christians? Isn’t it then that we realize anew our need to depend entirely on God and his grace?

So it was for the people of Israel. God was seeking to make them holy. So they’d have to wrestle against pagan religion. And a new generation had to learn how to fight under God’s direction. Our text gives the account of the first judge in this period. And compared to some of the other accounts, this story is told with a minimum of detail. Short and sweet: nothing’s allowed to distract from the clear message of God’s intervention: the LORD saved his people!

But first the context, the reason there was need for deliverance: “So the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the LORD. They forgot the LORD their God, and served the Baals and Asherahs” (v 7). We’ve all heard of Baal and Asherah. This was the male and female god of vegetation and fertility. If you wanted a good harvest, these were the ones to call up. They gave no guarantees, of course, but made you feel better about your prospects. Because agriculture was an important activity in Canaan, their shrines still littered the countryside.

            And the people of Israel were lured to go there. They wanted good crops, after all. Maybe they wanted a little extra “insurance,” another god or two to depend on. But the result of idolatry was unmistakable, as it always is: “They forgot the LORD their God” (v 7). This is exactly what Moses had warned against in Deuteronomy: “Don’t serve the gods you find in the land.” It was all so predictable. But they did it anyway.

            So why did they? Why would you ever conclude that bowing down to a wooden pole is the answer to your troubles? And before we scorn the Israelites too loudly, can’t the same be asked of us? For haven’t we made our own idols, bowed down before our images? Yes, just what is the attraction of a false god?

Well, consider the nature of faith. Faith needs an object. That is, we need something—someone—to look to; we need somewhere to place our trust. And the tendency of the heart is to look for this in all the wrong places. For we cherish the things that are visible, love what we can control. We trust whatever seems to us most real and present.

That was the reasoning of the Israelites at Sinai, when they made the golden calf. They made a god they could see, a god they could feel better about. That’s also how it goes for us. In our unbelief, we don’t always experience God’s nearness—though He’s never left us. Doubting his promises, we think we need some extra help. Failing to embrace the fullness of fellowship with God, we look for our satisfaction in other places. 

What kind of idols do we mean? I don’t want to give a long list, because it could be anything, and it is anything—anything we allow to come between God and us. It’s what prevents us from walking in a devoted relationship with Him alone. It’s what sucks our energy and zeal and trust and time away from the gospel of Jesus Christ, and pours it into something else. It’s the meaning we seek, the purpose we chase after, the gratification we crave—on our own terms, apart from the LORD and his Word.

Take a moment to search out the idols in your life. Idols are revealed by our securities. For we can ask ourselves: “What am I trusting in for this next week, or during this anxious time, or for my future?” Idols are revealed by our priorities: “What’s most important to me? What do I first want to spend my time doing, or my money on?” And idols are revealed by our fears. What do we most fear? Do we fear being alone? Do we fear sickness? Do we fear poverty? We can ask: “What if this possession was taken away? What if this activity was no longer possible? What is this person wasn’t around? Could I still be happy; could I still be thankful?”

Beloved, the Word and Spirit confront us with our idolatry. They tell us that we are great sinners, but even more, that Christ is a great Saviour! For Jesus came to save us from our idols. He came to show us, beyond any doubt, that we’ve no need for anything besides the LORD. For He revealed God, like He’d never been revealed before. At the cross, Jesus showed that we may indeed trust in Him alone. He showed that God’s grace is sufficient for our every need. When we believe in Christ, He can be our security. He can be our joy. He can banish every fear. But let’s also consider,  

2)     God’s judgment through oppression: If Israel’s idolatry was predictable, then so was God’s judgment. For the LORD had told them He’d do this: He’d use the nations to chastise them. This step in the painful cycle was noted in chapter 2, “[God] sold them into the hands of their enemies all around” (v 14). Notice the language of selling: God is displeased with his people, so He takes away his “owner’s protection.” He exposes them to the nations. Whoever wants them can have them!

            The first that laid hands on Israel was Cushan-Rishathaim, described as the “king of Mesopotamia” (v 8). This was the region to the north of Palestine. We don’t know much about this king, except that even the mention of his name probably would’ve struck fear in the hearts of the Israelites. Literally, it means Cushan the “dark, the doubly-wicked.” When that kind of enemy is on his way, you should be afraid.

We’re also not told much about this time under Cushan, but the outline in chapter 2 speaks of “despoiling and harassing,” “distress and groaning.” Cushan the “Doubly-Wicked” probably imposed a heavy tax on the Israelites, and plundered the land. For eight long years Israel was under this foreign power—essentially a return to captivity. They were slaves in their own land, oppressed and beaten.

And remember, this misery was repeated, time after time. After a period of peace, and then of sin, another nation would invade. And again their foe would completely dominate: crops stolen, taxes imposed, a cloud of fear and anxiety over the land. The later judge Gideon asks the painful question, so central to this period, “If the LORD is with us, why then has all this happened to us?” (6:13).

On the one hand, it should’ve been easy to see why. If Israel would break covenant with God, then He’d take action against them. His justice demanded it. This was the consequence of sin, plain and simple. But we need to look closer, of course. This wasn’t simply a case of “crime and punishment,” God handing down a penalty to one who’s broken his law. No, once more, God had a gracious purpose, also in this. Why else would He let this cycle continue, for three centuries or more? After a couple of times, God could’ve given up on Israel. We say, “He should’ve given up.” For how tiring this was to him! What an embarrassment this people was! A dozen times He could’ve sold them to their enemies, and called it done. But a dozen times (and more), the LORD graciously took them back.

For God always sees the big picture. He’s never just a reactive God, moving from crisis to crisis. He never loses momentum. Also in these dark days of the judges, God is working on his plan: his plan to save, a plan outlined before the foundation of the world. So powerfully this speaks of the faithfulness of our God! With tyrants like Cushan-Rishathaim, Eglon and Jabin, the LORD might’ve brought judgment on his people, but that didn’t mean He had changed his mind about them: not for a minute! They were still his covenant people—loved not for their own sake, but for Jesus’ sake alone.

And because He loved them, He’d also bring this discipline upon them. Now, at the time, you can be sure that wasn’t easy to accept. It’s rarely easy to see the blessing in hardship! Hebrews 12 speaks of this. The author says that God will chasten his children: in different ways, perhaps through persecution, illness, or unemployment, the loss of a loved one, or just that ongoing struggle with the brokenness of life. And admittedly, such discipline is hard: “No chastening seems to be joyful for the present, but painful” (v 11). When we go through hardship, joy and thanksgiving are far from our minds.

            Yet we must be determined to see in it the gracious hand of our God. For, the Spirit explains, “If you endure chastening, God deals with you as with sons” (v 7). Hardship shows us that God is treating us as his own. Far better than we realize, God knows we need to be corrected, need to be taught, need to be shaped.

It’s what earthly fathers do, in all weakness—and it’s what our heavenly Father does, so perfectly. “We have had human fathers who corrected us, and we paid them respect. Shall we not much more readily be in subjection to the Father of spirits and live?” (v 9). Remember this: God chastens his people for our profit, “that we may be partakers of His holiness” (v 10). It’s what God wanted for Israel, that they might’ve learned to obey Him. And it’s what he wants for us. He wants discipline to yield that fruit of righteousness, when we’re trained by our hardship. Trained to trust and obey. Trained to walk in humility before God.

Now, it’s vital that we look at God’s discipline in the right way. For we might still want to put an “equals sign” between discipline and punishment: You do something wrong, you pay the price. It’s easy to conclude when we suffer, that maybe God’s still holding some old transgression against us, like He’s letting us know that He hasn’t forgotten.

But beloved, that’s not what God is doing. There are times we to be humbled. There are sins that God lets us feel the effects of, even for years. But know this: as bad as it gets, as terrible as it feels, the Father’s not punishing us for our guilt! He is not seeking to satisfy his wrath against us. For what man could ever bear the curse of God, and live? Israel couldn’t, and we can’t. Who could ever endure God’s just punishment on guilt, beside our Lord and Saviour? But by discipline, He would have us learn holiness. And He’d have us seek him for our deliverance. 

3)     Othniel’s work of deliverance: It’s easy presume upon the goodness of the LORD. Not until things take a turn for the worse do we realize how much we need Him; we turn to God in prayer, maybe even for the first time in a long time. But for Christ’s sake, the LORD hears our prayers, and He draws near. Also in their time of suffering, the people of Israel “cried out to the LORD” (v 9). And the LORD answers: “The LORD raised up a deliverer for the children of Israel, who delivered them: Othniel the son of Kenaz, Caleb’s younger brother” (v 9).

As we said, this is the first judge that God sent. Now, that term “judge” is misleading. We shouldn’t picture officials presiding over courts of law, but leaders with a wide range of power. These judges pointed out the right way to the people, not just on the battlefield, but in the home and the city and the tabernacle.

Some of these twelve judges were quite obscure. Everyone’s heard of Samson and his exploits, but few remember Othniel. Yet compared to many of the others, Othniel actually stands out, for nothing negative is said about him. The impression is that faithfully and humbly he carried out his God-given work. And if you look back, Othniel had already distinguished himself as a brave leader among the people. In Joshua 15, we learn that this same Othniel led Judah into battle against a fortified Canaanite city.

That was a long time ago, so by the time of our text we might suppose Othniel was getting on in years. Because of his age, he might’ve seemed unlikely as a deliverer! “How’s this old guy supposed to help us? What can he ever do against Cushan the Doubly-Wicked?” In this regard, Othniel fits in among the other judges, who were often implausible leaders: one was a woman, another the son of harlot, others had dubious family ties. Few were model believers.

But we should know by now that God doesn’t always pick those who are voted “most likely to succeed.” And in this way the judges point ahead to another unexpected saviour—yes, to our Saviour, Jesus Christ! For Jesus too, seemed most improbable. He wasn’t one to push himself forward, or demand attention. “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him” (Is 53:2).

Here though, is what makes all the difference: God chooses, and God equips. It is said of Othniel, “The Spirit of the LORD came upon him, and he judged Israel” (v 10). His commission was not of man, but from God. And the LORD wouldn’t let Othniel go into battle alone. So for the other judges, like Gideon, Jephthah, Samson, and Samuel—of all these it’s said that they received the Spirit, to work wisdom and courage and power. They would save, “Not by might or by power, but by my Spirit,” says the LORD Almighty (Zech 4:6).

Beloved, let’s think again of our Saviour. He was a man, one who faced all the limitations we face, subject to all the temptations we endure. He too, needed the Spirit for the work He’d undertake. Without the Spirit, his mission would’ve ended in failure. But anointed with the Spirit, He was faithful. Filled with the Spirit, He conquered all the hosts of the devil.  

In God’s power, Othniel too accomplished great things against a formidable opponent: “He went out to war, and the LORD delivered Cushan-Rishathaim king of Mesopotamia into his hand; and his hand prevailed over Cushan-Rishathaim” (v 10). Again, there’s little detail; the author tells of no careful strategies or schemes. This is all he has to say, “The LORD delivered.” Because that’s all that matters. In our misery, in our guilt—even in that almost endless cycle of sin and repentance, sin and repentance, that describes our lives—we can cry out to God in Christ, and He will deliver.

The result in Judges 3: “So the land had rest for forty years” (v 12). After years of suffering, there was relief in Israel. After bondage and oppression, there was freedom in the land. And isn’t that what everyone still wants? An end to war and conflict, protection from disease, and freedom from poverty. Yet that’s not the peace we need. True peace isn’t that happy feeling you have when all is well. No, it’s about how things stand between God and us. And the reality is, we once were God’s enemies on account of sin.

But Christ has given us peace with God! Othniel brought the land into a forty year rest, but Christ did something far better. For in Him, we’ve been reconciled to our Creator, restored to fellowship for all time. Christ went between us and the LORD, and by the cross He bridged the gap, He bore the curse of our guilt. Now God calls us friends, his children, his loved ones! Where before there was only war and hostility, now there’s peace!

            And it’s a peace so powerful, it can flow into every corner of our lives. If we have peace with God through Christ, then we’ll also have peace. That is, when we know Christ we can have contentment, whatever our outward circumstance. We can face all the uncertainties of daily existence with an abiding serenity—because things are good between God and us! Bottom line: we know God won’t leave us or forsake us, for Jesus’ sake alone.

We’ve come to the last line of our text. If we wanted, we could take it as another ominous, discouraging note: “Then Othniel the son of Kenaz died” (v 12). Because we know what happens in Israel whenever a righteous leader passes away. But we also know that our God is faithful! After Othniel, He will send another. And then another. And another. For a thousand years and more, God will keep on sending saviours to his people, judges and kings and prophets.

Until the One who died, and who rose again on the third day. Until the One who delivers us from all our enemies, and who takes away our sins forever. It’s Him we proclaim, Him we worship, and Him we trust: Jesus Christ, our great Redeemer. Amen.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2011, Rev. Reuben Bredenhof

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