Avoiding the sin of David’s census in the Church

During a recent discipling session, I was asked why King David’s census was a sin. Dissatisfied with the answer I gave, I chose to reexamine the passage for deeper clarity.

Before reading 2 Samuel 24, the text regarding David’s census, I suggest reading Exodus 19:3-6, Deuteronomy 17:14-20, and 1 Samuel 8, which I briefly summarize below.

Ex 19:3-6—The people of Israel were to be a kingdom of priests, a nation whose entire existence was to embody and exemplify the harmony of holiness that flowed from active allegiance to God’s rule.

Dt 17:14-20—Were Israel ever to have a king, Moses clarifies his duty would be that of a lawful steward who practiced God’s law first as an example for all the people.

1 Samuel 8—Israel demanded a king who would rule them like other nations. While permitting this displeasing request, God also had the prophet Samuel warn them what they were in for.

The text of 2 Samuel 24 begins with God being angry, again, with Israel. The text doesn’t say why. Whatever the reason, it’s David’s response that exacerbates the situation and becomes the story being told here. The last time God was angry with Israel, David’s response was to seek his presence and make amends. This time David’s response is to take a census of the people. Based on the results in 2 Samuel 24:9, it appears its purpose was to raise a national army. David, however, soon realizes he has sinned greatly. But how so? Censuses were taken in the past. Why was this one different?

Ever since the incident with Bathsheba, David’s reign had grown to resemble the kind of kingships Moses and Samuel had warned the people about, which God had never wanted Israel to have. By raising a standing national army, the census would be another step toward Israel becoming the kind of kingdom they were never called to be. In the past, Israel’s sanctioned wars with other nations only occurred when God used them to purge the Canaanite nations whose culture and way of life God had marked for judgment. Once these God-sanctioned wars were complete, the God-sanctioned army of Israel disbanded and went to live in their tribal-allotted lands. Throughout David’s rule, the soldiers following and fighting for him were of his own tribe or kin (2 Samuel 23), a growing point of contention amongst other tribes of Israel (2 Samuel 19:41-43). The raising of a standing national army would push Israel further towards their demanded desire to be “like other nations” rather than God’s priestly people. David’s census, therefore, augmented Israel’s rejection of God as their King.

What possibly compounds the sinfulness of David’s decision, however, is the motive. Reacting to God’s anger, David’s decision is a preventative measure against the possibility of an invading army. But if that army were being brought against him as part of God’s judgment, then David’s use of Israel’s national army would be tantamount to opposing God. The census is the contemplation of raising an army from amongst God’s people to defend God’s king against the LORD their God who saved and called them to be his purposeful people. David is here being the kind of king God never wanted Israel to have. This contemplation by the “man after God’s own heart” to undermine God’s covenant with such an initiative verifies why nationalization posed such a danger to Israel’s identity as a people whose purpose was to bless all the families of the world. Adulterating their God-shaped uniqueness, nationalization would indeed make them like all the nations. Israel’s united kingdom only lasted three kings before it split. David’s son, Solomon, would give Israel the final fragmenting push. Israel wanted a kingdom like all the nations; they got one.

By contrast, David’s decision also underlines why, if Israel was ever to fully become the kingdom of priests through whom God would bless the world, they would need a King fully endowed with God’s holy character to show them how. A king, not like that of the nations, but of heaven, who would enact God’s will on earth.

Jesus’ tenet to “Seek first the kingdom of God” would correct this tendency of God’s people to prioritize policies that compete with God’s rule, whether it was the first century Jewish commonwealth or the current “America First” policy, or simply the usual “Me First” philosophy. By seeking Jesus’ “kingdom first” policy, we order our lives around, not the sameness of nations, but the uniqueness of Jesus’ reign by which God is restoring humanity to the harmony born of God’s holiness.


What the Church might yet learn from Billy Graham

I must confess I struggle to know what the term Evangelical means anymore. I know that in the Greek, it originally meant good news or gospel. While I find that to be the most clarifying sense of the word, for over many years now it seems to have also taken on nuances of historical nostalgia, political influence, and attitudes similar to those who might pursue and preserve power. It’s a word whose many connotations I find difficult to fully comprehend. It has a lot of baggage with it that has burdened its original intention to convey God’s good news. For that reason, I rarely use it or readily identify with it.

This morning I woke up to the news that the Reverend Billy Graham had passed into God’s good presence. I know of Billy Graham the same as what everybody knows, that he was a preacher of Jesus Christ. While I wish I knew more about him, when it comes down to it, that is what he essentially was. A man who devoted his life to travelling from city to city, state to state, country to country preaching the good news about Jesus. In a culture that frequently esteems complexity and nuance, it’s amazing to think a man of such simplicity impacted the world so greatly.

In a sense, that simple essence helps remind and clarify what it might mean to be evangelical. A person whose life reveals God’s good news.

Reverend Graham’s passing comes at a time in our history where so much of the country is embroiled in a chaotic divisiveness of which the Church is very much a part. What role the Church goes on to play amidst this chaos will greatly depend on whose rule or kingdom we are seeking.

In Reverend Graham’s death and our looking back at the simple essence he was about, maybe the Church can be reminded that our essence is not about leveraging power to progress an agenda, but to be those whose lives really convey God’s good news.

My Dad once told me a story that when Richard Nixon received the presidential nomination at the Republican convention, he invited friend Billy Graham to a backroom with other friends and politicians where there would likely be smoking, drinking, cussing, political discourse. Ruth Graham, however, pulled Billy aside and said, “That’s no place for the man of God.”

Our place is to make much of Jesus and embody his way of living that conveys the uniqueness of God’s good news. It is a mission for which Reverend Graham labored long; now that his labors are over, his labors are now ours. As we take them up, let us be careful to leave the baggage behind. May we take up his labor of love in such a way that conveys news that is truly good.

Does the old covenant nullify Jesus’ teachings?

Some time ago it was put to me that since Jesus’ teachings were delivered prior to his crucifixion, they fell under the old covenant and are, therefore, irrelevant.

Uncertain of the logic at work, I was unsure how to immediately respond. Perhaps it was a form of Marcionism applied to all events leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion. Maybe it was an interpretation of Jesus’ last supper words “this is the new covenant in my blood” that presumed the whole of the new covenant’s reality exists only after his blood was shed. Whatever the case, if the statement is followed to its logical conclusion, it essentially discards everything Jesus said, did, and, ultimately, requires of us. Therefore, lest such a notion flourish within the Church community, I wish to share three brief thoughts on the establishing of the new covenant.

First, while the new covenant was certainly certified and initiated at the cross, the reality of the new covenant’s good news was initially established at the start of John the baptizer’s ministry. In Luke 16:16, Jesus says “The law and the prophets were in effect until John came; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is proclaimed”.

The law and the prophets constituted the reality of the old covenant. John’s message heralded the impending new covenant. Where the herald of the king is, there is the reality of the imminent king. How much more when the king actually appears?

Secondly, therefore, as God’s Spirit incarnate, Jesus’ arrival and ministry simultaneously fulfilled the righteous requirements of the old covenant while also transformatively establishing the reality and essence of the new covenant. In his earliest recorded sermon, Jesus began “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Mt5:17-19).

How is it that the old covenant passes away but its law does not? By becoming something else, what it was always meant to be—holiness distinguishing the heart of God in us. Not a system of works-righteousness, but worship lived in responsive conformity to the righteousness the King embodied on our behalf.

Finally, through Jesus’ death as the inaugural sacrifice, the new covenant is initiated as the living standard for all who would follow him. The old covenant followed the same pattern. Moses delivered the law to the Israelite people (Ex19-23), then the people pledged to obey it (Ex24:3). After Moses offered sacrifices (Ex24:4-6), he identified the blood as what notarized the covenant that then defined the relationship between God and his people (Ex24:7). Jesus mirrors this imagery at the last supper when he says, “this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Mt26:28).

Having received forgiveness, we now answer God’s grace with a response of obedience proportionate to what his new covenant requires of us.

Why does this material matter?

John Bright writes “Repelled by all legalism, we have come close to the point of apologizing for any duty religion seems to involve, nay, have offered a religion almost without the demand of duty at all. Can it be that in casting off all religious duty, we have ended up admitting no duty—save to ourselves? It is time that we heeded the lesson of the Holy Commonwealth: that religion, aside from all that it does for man, lays before him a duty and demands that he do it. Christianity does involve duty. And that duty is to obey God, not in general and as it is convenient, but in every detail, and without exception.”

Brought to life as his Church, we are a covenant-people whose culture is to distinguish a holiness and worship that reveals in us the heart upon which God has said “I will put my law” (Jer31:33).

A thought for when nothing seems to matter

Fun fact: If in certain seasons you’ve struggled with the thought that nothing matters, you are viewing the world through the lenses of nihilism. Stemming from the Latin word meaning “nothing”, nihilism is, writes philosophy professor James Sire, “more of a feeling than a philosophy. Nihilism is not a philosophy at all but a denial of philosophy, of knowledge, of anything valuable, even existence itself.”

I myself am tempted on occasion into this way of feeling. Sometimes it comes in seasons of frustration, isolation, or anger. Sometimes exaggerated shadows in my mind will induce panic or anxiety, or I may even just slip into the darkness of indifference.

How do I then try to turn my philosophical frown upside down? I try to remember an inversion—ex nihilo! 

Stemming from the same Latin word, ex nihilo is a phrase made in reference to God’s means of creation—“out of nothing”. Though acknowledging a void, the phrase’s focus is upon what God chooses to do with that void.

The psalmist beautifully writes “By the word of the LORD the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth…For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm” (Ps33:6,9).

Whereas nihilism denies existence has any meaning, ex nihilo declares that meaning comes from beyond existence. God takes nothingness and calls existence into being. Nothingness is the canvas God makes his masterpiece.

Whenever you wonder if nothing matters, remember God made matter from nothing. Having come into existence by God’s allowance, we have left nothingness behind. We matter because we are God-made matter.

We are not abandoned to a void but within this reality being brought towards the renewal of all things, we are creation’s centerpieces whose worth flows from out of the resplendence of God’s power and creativity.



A Framework for Nurturing Faithfulness

In each of our lives there come moments we wish we had more faith. In such moments, it would be encouraging to know where and how faith may be found. For such an edifying process, I hope to offer the following framework.

In Matthew 8:5-13, Jesus encounters a Roman centurion whose display of faith amazes him, and, I believe, offers faith-forming wisdom for us to imitate. For sequential purposes, I will examine this passage backwards, beginning in vv8b-9.

The centurion had come to a certain realization about Jesus. In vv8b-9, he says “…only speak the word, and my servant will be healed. For I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.” 

The spreading news of Jesus’ powerful teachings and healings was forcing everyone to reconsider their concepts of reality. The centurion’s own contemplations led him to conclude Jesus was lord over reality. This is the foundation of the centurion’s faith-formation, and the impetus of everything that happened from there.

So, firstly, Faith is formed in the acknowledgment and appreciation of Jesus’ authority.

If faith is the “confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see”, then the beholding, hearing, and believing of Jesus’ words and actions provides the sight that establishes such blessed assurance and erects confidence for continual hope. Acknowledging Jesus’ lordship over all reality brings our perceptions out from the shadows of our anxieties and ushers them into glorious dimensions made vibrant in the supremacy of Christ. But just as steel in a forge needs to be hammered and quenched, freshly formed faith needs regulating and stabilizing.

In v8a, the centurion’s initial objection to Jesus coming to his house was Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof”.

Having realized Jesus’ lordship, the centurion realized Jesus’ worth and value surpassed his own. While his own position commanded respect from his fellow soldiers and his words could issue military orders, he knew he had no ability to restore hope to the haggard soul or power to command healing over a body. In the presence of Jesus, he could only be in awe.

Secondly, therefore, Faith is tempered by humility and wonder.

If acknowledging Jesus’ lordship is what seats him upon the throne of our minds and hearts, wonder and humility is what both keeps him enthroned there and prevents us from trying to usurp him as sovereign over our lives. Wonder is the bliss that enables joy at Christ’s supremacy. Humility is the channel by which we receive the peace of his rule. With this posture both mind and heart can remain in a serenity that, as we shall see, overflows into bodily expression. 

So, for what purpose is faith formed and tempered? As a representative of Rome, the centurion had seen power leveraged for every self-aggrandizing agenda under the sun. He knew his small local band of occupying soldiers was, but a fraction of the empire determined to rule the world by any means necessary. If they didn’t, other kings and armies would. Power, they felt, existed to exalt those who held it, often through suppression. But whatever regard he may have still held for Caesar and for his own duty, the person and words of Jesus now held a regard of a far greater kind. This Jesus who wielded and weaved a power over and throughout reality used it to bring hope and healing to the people not even the greatest world superpower would bother to aid. This simple, but most powerful man in the world served the weakest among him. This completely transformed the centurion’s perception of the purpose of power, inspiring his own newly formed faith to serve.

Upon seeing his servants’ sickness, the centurion thus responds according to the character of Jesus, asking him in v6 Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, in terrible distress.” 

Faith is implemented by compassion.

There are times I find myself in existential queries, wonder what to do with my life. But if someone asks for my help, I know right what to do. Compassion gives definition to duty. It cuts away at all the banalities to let what is important emerge.  Compassion infuses the theoretical with opportunity. Compassion is the form allegiance to Christ takes. It is the quickening of obedience. Compassion tests out faith that has been forged to determine whether it is real or fake.

Just as compassion characterized Jesus’ ministry (Mt 9:35-38, 14:13-21), and directed the centurion’s faith, it will instruct us where, to whom, and how to apply this faith God has shaped in us.

To put this process into play in our own lives, I would advise a patient and prayerful reading and contemplation of Scripture, with attention paid to passages that explore the supremacy of Jesus Christ. Let the words transform your perception and weave wonderful worshipfulness into your rhythms. From there, look around and about you for those in need, consider how you might respond, and then go do so.

Faith is God’s gift to us. As with any precious valuable, faithfulness requires conservation. I hope this framework helps nurture in you a faithfulness that keeps your life allegiant to the King.

A Rite of Corpse and Covenant

In Luke’s account of the institution of the Lord’s Supper, the text says in chapter 22:19-20: 19 Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 20 And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.

Within Jesus’ words here is something of a twofold structure for how we might understand the salvation God is setting into us; specifically that we are saved from something and saved for something.

In v19, Jesus took the loaf and said “This is my body, which is given for you”. Many times in the New Testament Scriptures, the word “body” is used to describe, yes, our physical bodies, but also the arena in which our struggle with our sinful nature is the most intense. So by instating the bread, Jesus establishes it is by the holy nature of his own body that the fallen nature of our bodies is being redeemed. Thus we who are allegiant to him share in the freedom from sin’s enslaving dominion.

Being liberated from slavery, however, does not yet mean we are empowered for the life of freedom.

So in v20, Jesus then takes the cup and says “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood”. Israel’s failure to keep the old covenant revealed the dominion of sinful nature at work in our fallen flesh. With Christ’s body having liberated us from our fallen nature’s dominion, we are now prepared to enter into a new covenant reality designed to reveal Christ’s holy nature. The institution of the cup, therefore, certifies that in Jesus’ blood is the initiation of that new reality. His blood brings to life the covenant reality those allegiant to him shall display by embodying the harmony of holiness Jesus himself personified and proclaimed.

This twofold structure sets Christ’s redemptive rhythms into our lives. The Communion rite reminds us of who we are in Christ and reinvigorates us for life in Christ. In taking the bread, let us do so remembering his body has saved us from the dominion of sin in our own bodies. As we take the cup, let us do so as committing our allegiance to the holy way of living for which Jesus’ life saves us.

A song lyric of mine goes “From out of the dark, into his kingdom of light, we are made new by his resurrection might”. Communion is not about staying stuck in the patterns of our sin-riddled corpses of yesterday, but embracing God’s covenanted freedom today for the future Christ’s life empowers and propels his people toward.