Church, Stop Trying to be Relevant

In the summer of 2015 I remember taking a group of youth to summer camp. This particular summer camp is the best summer camp I have ever had the privilege of taking students to because the teaching at this camp was simply an exposition of the Bible. After we got home from camp, I remember looking at all of the camp pictures and, in those pictures, I looked much bigger around the waist than I remembered being. I weighed about 245 pounds. I got tired easily, and I really couldn’t get that much done in a day. As I was looking at this picture, I decided to make a change. I was going to be healthier.

I started doing my research. Out of all of the books, articles, and blogs I read, not a single one tried to make a healthy diet relevant to me by disguising it as something I already liked. They did not come out and say I could lose weight by eating Chick-fil-a or Krispy Kreme. Instead, almost every single person claimed that I would have to change. In the same way, hospitals don’t try to make health relevant to the culture, and personal trainers don’t try to make fitness relevant to the next generation. Why? Physicians and personal trainers do what they do in order to see people changed in response to truth. People cannot be catered to and transformed in the same breath. 

Through 1 Samuel so far, we have discovered that God’s desire is not to cater to people or make salvation relevant to each new generation. Instead, God is defeating His people for His own glory and transforming His people into the image of His Son according to His own will. God has placed these enemies in the land of Israel for His good purposes- to be a thorn in the sides of His people and so that their gods would be a snare to them. In one day, God had fulfilled His promise to Eli’s household, and the ark of God’s covenant was captured and taken into enemy territory.

1 Samuel 5

Now the Philistines took the ark of God and brought it from Ebenezer to Ashdod. Then the Philistines took the ark of God and brought it to the house of Dagon and set it by Dagon. When the Ashdodites arose early the next morning, behold, Dagon had fallen on his face to the ground before the ark of the Lord. So they took Dagon and set him in his place again. But when they arose early the next morning, behold, Dagon had fallen on his face to the ground before the ark of the Lord. And the head of Dagon and both the palms of his hands were cut off on the threshold; only the trunk of Dagon was left to him. Therefore neither the priests of Dagon nor all who enter Dagon’s house tread on the threshold of Dagon in Ashdod to this day.

Now the hand of the Lord was heavy on the Ashdodites, and He ravaged them and smote them with tumors, both Ashdod and its territories. When the men of Ashdod saw that it was so, they said, “The ark of the God of Israel must not remain with us, for His hand is severe on us and on Dagon our god.”

So they sent and gathered all the lords of the Philistines to them and said, “What shall we do with the ark of the God of Israel?” And they said, “Let the ark of the God of Israel be brought around to Gath.” And they brought the ark of the God of Israel around.

After they had brought it around, the hand of the Lord was against the city with very great confusion; and He smote the men of the city, both young and old, so that tumors broke out on them. So they sent the ark of God to Ekron. And as the ark of God came to Ekron the Ekronites cried out, saying, “They have brought the ark of the God of Israel around to us, to kill us and our people.”

They sent therefore and gathered all the lords of the Philistines and said, “Send away the ark of the God of Israel, and let it return to its own place, so that it will not kill us and our people.” For there was a deadly confusion throughout the city; the hand of God was very heavy there. And the men who did not die were smitten with tumors and the cry of the city went up to heaven.

God’s work for God’s glory (v. 1-5)

Now the Philistines took the ark of God and brought it from Ebenezer to Ashdod. Then the Philistines took the ark of God and brought it to the house of Dagon and set it by Dagon.

After God gave victory to the Philistines (4:3), the Philistines took God’s ark and placed it by Dagon. Dagon is seen by the Biblical writers as the national deity of the Philistines. According to Mesopotamian mythology, Dagon was celebrated as the father of Ba’al, the storm god. Whenever an enemy would capture the god of a nation and take it to their own city, it was believed that the nation whose God was captured had been fully conquered. When the Philistines bring the ark of God out of Israel and into Philistia, their assumption is that Israel has been fully conquered.

What strikes me about the first two verses in chapter five is that when the Philistines bring the ark to Ashdod, they take it into the temple of Dagon and then set it by the idol of Dagon in the temple. We know from chapter 4, verses 6 and 7, that the Philistines had already witnessed God’s power. When they saw the ark, they feared the God of Israel even though they did not know Him or understand Him. They heard about God because, through human history, God had been working all things together in order that He might be glorified among all people, both those who are His children and those who are not. The Philistines did not place the ark of God in a place that was less prominent than that of Dagon. They set it beside Dagon. The Hebrew word, אצל, indicates close proximity to or connection with. This power that they previously recognized God to have was to be desired. So, the Philistines add the Israelite God to their temple.

There are many groups in the world today that do the same thing. Hindus add Jesus to their pantheon of other gods. Other groups try to take God and place Him in the context of religion that is not Biblical for the sake of being relevant (majority evangelicalism) or of following some latter day prophet (Mormonism, Ecclesia Ni Cristo, Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witness, and others). In these cases, just like the Philistines, people have recognized something about God, namely His power, and have tried to claim that for themselves by trying to bring God into their temples, whether literal or metaphorical. They want the things of Christ in a way that fits them. They don’t necessarily want to follow Christ. Because of this, many groups that refer to themselves as “Christian” are actually not Christian at all.

As we discovered last week and every week leading up to this part of the story, God is not contained in the ark and God is the one who provides all things, bringing His people to Himself- not being captured by people by any religious or irreligious means. God is the sovereign, here, not the Philistines, not you, and certainly not me.

When the Ashdodites arose early the next morning, behold, Dagon had fallen on his face to the ground before the ark of the Lord. So they took Dagon and set him in his place again. But when they arose early the next morning, behold, Dagon had fallen on his face to the ground before the ark of the Lord. And the head of Dagon and both the palms of his hands were cut off on the threshold; only the trunk of Dagon was left to him. Therefore neither the priests of Dagon nor all who enter Dagon’s house tread on the threshold of Dagon in Ashdod to this day.

In the previous chapter, we saw how God humbled His own national people, who were a picture of the church. God defeated His people for their own good and for His own glory as He worked all things together for the purpose of establishing Christ’s throne within His creation.

In this chapter, we witness God subjecting the fake god, Dagon, to Himself in a very obvious and humorous way. We consider the tendency of the modern day church. Placed in the same situation, we would say something like, “How can we make the Law more relevant to the Philistines so that they will feel more comfortable attending tabernacle?” The way that we see God working in every part of His inspired word is entirely contrary to this sort of tendency. He is not concerned with making His word and work more relevant. He is interested in His own glory, the subjection of all people to Him as the rightful king, and the repentance of His people, which leads to life.

In our own society. we are surrounded by unbelievers. We are surrounded by people who have rejected Christ and have rejected His church. We are surrounded by people who claim to be religious or claim to be Christian, yet their Christianity is something that contradicts God’s Bible entirely. The first response of otherwise well-intending people is to suggest that the organized church needs to change something in order to look more like the world so that worldly people will be attracted to the church building. We need to be more relevant! As we have been walking through 1 Samuel we’ve seen that God is the one who is sovereign, who provides all things, and who brings His people to Himself. The only thing that people accomplish by making the organized church look and feel more like the world is that the church itself becomes God’s enemy. It would be like attracting people to a weight-loss program or a health clinic by offering free super-sized Big Mac value meals! If this is our goal, I can think of a few ways to get the world into our church buildings:

  1. Give away free stuff (e.g. technology, money, beer),
  2. provide a motivational speech and preach pop-culture (e.g. “At The Movies”)
  3. have entertaining music,
  4. and tell people only about God’s love without calling anyone to repentance.

If we really knew God at the most basic level, we would recognize that God is working all things together, including both belief and unbelief, for His glory alone. Even in Hannah’s praise, she proclaims this theological truth, “[God] keeps the feet of His godly ones, But the wicked ones are silenced in darkness; for not by might shall man prevail” (2:9). God is not interested in being relevant. He is interested in our transformation, our being conformed to the image of Christ. We cannot both remain worldly and be transformed. That sort of worldview is entirely contradictory to the Bible and incoherent. This is why our goal as the church is to change in response to God’s word, not the sinful attraction of the world. In speaking on considering the desires or attraction of people above submission to God, James wrote, 

“You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God… Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded” (James 4:4, 8).

Those who have relevance as their goal and conformity to the world as their means are identified by Scripture as enemies of God and as double-minded. We cannot serve two masters because we will end up loving one and hating the other (Matthew 6:24). This means much as we practice evangelism. It means the only thing we can and should do is take the Gospel to people. God’s word is sufficient. We fail when we water it down with all of this other stuff that we believe to be attractional.

The response of unbelievers (v. 6-12)

Now the hand of the Lord was heavy on the Ashdodites, and He ravaged them and smote them with tumors, both Ashdod and its territories. When the men of Ashdod saw that it was so, they said, “The ark of the God of Israel must not remain with us, for His hand is severe on us and on Dagon our god.”

Here, we witness that God did not only obviously subject the false god to Himself, but He smote the Philistines. He had defeated Israel and now He was also defeating the Philistines. While the majority church is trying to attract and elevate people, God is making His power known by defeating people, humbling them, and showing how small and inadequate people truly are. If we are good enough and if we are worthy of being catered to, then we have no need of God’s transforming power. If we are to be transformed and brought out of our unrighteousness and into God’s righteousness alone, then the Gospel need not show its relevance to our current time. It displays our unrighteousness and calls us to repentance and conformity to Christ’s image. It does so much like a personal trainer forces us to look into a mirror so that we see our need for change. This is the very reason that the Bible was given to us (Deuteronomy 31:26-29, Romans 5:20-21, Galatians 3:19-22).

So they sent and gathered all the lords of the Philistines to them and said, “What shall we do with the ark of the God of Israel?” And they said, “Let the ark of the God of Israel be brought around to Gath.” And they brought the ark of the God of Israel around.

After they had brought it around, the hand of the Lord was against the city with very great confusion; and He smote the men of the city, both young and old, so that tumors broke out on them. So they sent the ark of God to Ekron. And as the ark of God came to Ekron the Ekronites cried out, saying, “They have brought the ark of the God of Israel around to us, to kill us and our people.”

They sent therefore and gathered all the lords of the Philistines and said, “Send away the ark of the God of Israel, and let it return to its own place, so that it will not kill us and our people.” For there was a deadly confusion throughout the city; the hand of God was very heavy there. And the men who did not die were smitten with tumors and the cry of the city went up to heaven.

What we are reading about God’s action, here, doesn’t really fit with most people’s belief about who God is. They have ignored large portions of the Bible or don’t really believe what the Bible says about God. While people are saying that the church needs to be more relevant the Bible reveals that worldly people will always reject the things of God when they come into contact with the things of God. This is the theology of the Bible and the Bible is coherent concerning God’s sovereignty and God’s pursuit of His own glory among all people through all time and in every place. Paul, in his broad commentary on the Old Testament, writes:

So then it (adoption as sons of God, v. 4) does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy.

For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I raised you up, to demonstrate My power in you, and that My name might be proclaimed throughout the whole earth.”

So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires. You will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?” On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, “Why did you make me like this,” will it? Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for common use? 

What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction? And He did so to make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory, even us, whom He also called, not from among Jews only, but also from among Gentiles (Romans 9:16-24).

Did you catch that? No will or work of people can bring people into adoption as sons, but only God who has mercy. God has mercy on whom He will have mercy. He has prepared both vessels of glory and wrath so that He might reveal Himself and be glorified.

When worldly people see the power of God, their response is, “Get rid of all the godly stuff!” We cannot win people to Christ using any means, strategy, or tactics of our own. Worldly people who encounter God respond with fear and rebellion against God. There are many organized churches from which the things of God have been expelled for the sake of relevance. If the world is comfortable in a church, then that church is not filled with God’s power (though God’s power is made evident to them). This is why Paul instructs the Roman believers, “…do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.” God wins His own glory among both His true children (vessels prepared beforehand for glory) and unbelievers (vessels prepared beforehand for wrath). We have no power to turn the tide by any means. It is us who are to be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2). God is the one to be glorified, not us. This being said, we welcome every sinner hoping that the sinner will come and experience God’s saving grace and transforming power. We won’t cater to you because we worship God. That would be counter-productive and has proven to be over the course of the last 100 years (with the emergence of entertainment-driven youth ministry and concert churches). We reject drive-through, super-size me religion. We desire, and God demands, repentance because we are all sinners in need of salvation by grace alone through faith alone. We are not inviting anyone to come take advantage of God. We are inviting everyone to come, believe, repent, and be transformed to the likeness of Jesus Christ. He is our rest. He is our salvation. He is our satisfaction. In Him we have eternal life. Do you recognize your unrighteousness? Will you believe, repent, and be transformed today?

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One comment

  • I have review this sermon four times. Thank you for having the conviction to set forth the meaning of Scripture on such a touchy subject. God bless you,
    Albert

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