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The Danger of Misdiagnosing Motives


[1]0 “And when [the Israelites] came to the region of the Jordan that is in the land of Canaan, the people of Reuben and the people of Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh built there an altar by the Jordan, an altar of imposing size. 11 And the people of Israel heard it said, "Behold, the people of Reuben and the people of Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh have built the altar at the frontier of the land of Canaan, in the region about the Jordan, on the side that belongs to the people of Israel." 12 And when the people of Israel heard of it, the whole assembly of the people of Israel gathered at Shiloh to make war against them. (Jos. 22:10-12, ESV

This is one of the clearest examples in Scripture where we see just how possible and dangerous it is for God’s people, even in a godly desire and righteous zeal for the truth, to turn on their own brothers and sisters.

The context of Joshua is one of unrelenting battles: Israel, as God’s people, have been commanded to take possession – via military conquest – of the land promised to them by the LORD. 

The danger of being in a state of perpetual wardom is that sometimes we can lose sight of who is friend and who is foe; when we find ourselves constantly swinging our arms and fists in battle against our foes, there is always the danger of hitting and harming those who are nearest and dearest to us – our friends.

Thankfully, God delights in the unity of His people more than His people do. Rather than letting Israel make yet another impetuous decision (see Jos. 9) and destroy their brethren in war, the LORD directs the leaders to first assess the situation before allowing those eager to wield the sword of orthodoxy to start slicing and dicing:

13 Then the people of Israel sent to the people of Reuben and the people of Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh, in the land of Gilead, Phinehas the son of Eleazar the priest, 14 and with him ten chiefs, one from each of the tribal families of Israel, every one of them the head of a family among the clans of Israel. 15 And they came to the people of Reuben, the people of Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh, in the land of Gilead, and they said to them, 16 "Thus says the whole congregation of the LORD, 'What is this breach of faith that you have committed against the God of Israel in turning away this day from following the LORD by building yourselves an altar this day in rebellion against the LORD? Have we not had enough of the sin at Peor from which even yet we have not cleansed ourselves, and for which there came a plague upon the congregation of the LORD, 18 that you too must turn away this day from following the LORD? And if you too rebel against the LORD today then tomorrow he will be angry with the whole congregation of Israel. 19 But now, if the land of your possession is unclean, pass over into the LORD's land where the LORD's tabernacle stands, and take for yourselves a possession among us. Only do not rebel against the LORD or make us as rebels by building for yourselves an altar other than the altar of the LORD our God. 20 Did not Achan the son of Zerah break faith in the matter of the devoted things, and wrath fell upon all the congregation of Israel? And he did not perish alone for his iniquity.'" (Jos. 22:13-20, ESV)

The people of Israel were right to be concerned about any kind of breach of faith, for it was not that long prior to this incident where the whole congregation was deceived by the false prophet Balaam, resulting in 24,000 Israelites being destroyed (Num. 25). More recently, all of Israel was implicated in Achan’s own apostasy after the taking of Jericho (Jos. 7). 

Mercifully, before putting their brethren to the edge of the sword, God raised up godly leaders with enough sense to first find out if the charges and allegations being leveled against their brethren were in fact legitimate and true. 

Providentially, because of the patience of Phineas, the leaders of the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and Manesseh were given an opportunity to defend and explain not only their actions, but also the motives behind the actions:

21 Then the people of Reuben, the people of Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh said in answer to the heads of the families of Israel, 22 "The Mighty One, God, the LORD! The Mighty One, God, the LORD! He knows; and let Israel itself know! If it was in rebellion or in breach of faith against the LORD, do not spare us today 23 for building an altar to turn away from following the LORD. Or if we did so to offer burnt offerings or grain offerings or peace offerings on it, may the LORD himself take vengeance. 24 No, but we did it from fear that in time to come your children might say to our children, 'What have you to do with the LORD, the God of Israel? 25 For the LORD has made the Jordan a boundary between us and you, you people of Reuben and people of Gad. You have no portion in the LORD.' So your children might make our children cease to worship the LORD. 26 Therefore we said, 'Let us now build an altar, not for burnt offering, nor for sacrifice, 27 but to be a witness between us and you, and between our generations after us, that we do perform the service of the LORD in his presence with our burnt offerings and sacrifices and peace offerings, so your children will not say to our children in time to come, "You have no portion in the LORD."' 28 And we thought, 'If this should be said to us or to our descendants in time to come, we should say, "Behold, the copy of the altar of the LORD, which our fathers made, not for burnt offerings, nor for sacrifice, but to be a witness between us and you."' 29 Far be it from us that we should rebel against the LORD and turn away this day from following the LORD by building an altar for burnt offering, grain offering, or sacrifice, other than the altar of the LORD our God that stands before his tabernacle!" (Jos. 22:21-29, ESV)

Tragedy averted. These fellow Israelites had not forsaken neither Yahweh nor His Law. Their actions stemmed not from a desire to abandon Yahweh, but from a desire to that He be worshipped throughout successive generations.

And so, rather than destroying their fellow Israelites, we see the people not only unified, but strengthened in their unity.

30 When Phinehas the priest and the chiefs of the congregation, the heads of the families of Israel who were with him, heard the words that the people of Reuben and the people of Gad and the people of Manasseh spoke, it was good in their eyes. 31 And Phinehas the son of Eleazar the priest said to the people of Reuben and the people of Gad and the people of Manasseh, "Today we know that the LORD is in our midst, because you have not committed this breach of faith against the LORD. Now you have delivered the people of Israel from the hand of the LORD." 32 Then Phinehas the son of Eleazar the priest, and the chiefs, returned from the people of Reuben and the people of Gad in the land of Gilead to the land of Canaan, to the people of Israel, and brought back word to them. 33 And the report was good in the eyes of the people of Israel. And the people of Israel blessed God and spoke no more of making war against them to destroy the land where the people of Reuben and the people of Gad were settled. 34 The people of Reuben and the people of Gad called the altar Witness, "For," they said, "it is a witness between us that the LORD is God." (Jos. 22:30-34, ESV)

Some take-aways for application in our day and age, :

  1. Meditate upon (and memorize if possible) the following Scriptures:

    - Proverbs 17:15 – “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.”

    - Make sure you hear from the source before drawing conclusions about their motives. In the word of the apostle James: be quick to hear and slow to speak.

    - Proverbs 18:13 (LSB) – “He who responds to a matter before he hears, it is folly and shame to him."

    - Make sure you actually listen before responding (or posting online, of spreading gossip or slander).

    - 1 Corinthians 13:7 – “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

    - Remember, the fruit of the Spirit – love – manifests itself in patience and charity

    - Galatians 5:15 – “But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.”

    - Ephesians 4:3 (NIV) – “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.”

    - Creating disunity and division is easier than the effort necessary to maintain the blood-bought unity Christ purchased for His church.

    - 1 Peter 4:8 – “Above all, keeping loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins.”

    - Slander and bitterness wither away in the environment of earnest and affectionate love for our brothers and sisters in the Lord.

    - Romans 14:19 (cf. 1 Peter 3:10) – “So then, let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.”

  2. Though Matthew 7:1 is often misquoted and used as a license for sin, we must be careful of ignoring what Jesus taught about unfair and unsubstantiated judgment of others. Let us prayerfully make sure our perspective has been properly informed by the truth before impugning another image-bearer-of God’s character by our rash conclusions and condemning words (7:2-5).[2]
  1. Cherish the ultimate “Altar of Witness.” Every time physically gather to celebrate the Lord’s Supper as a church, we testify that it is through the costly sacrifice of Christ that we have been made one through and in Him. Because of the cross, the humility necessary to effect brotherly love and reconciliation is possible. How can we hold grudges or gossip against the ones the One we love loves?[3] 
  1. Pray 1 Peter 4:8 for GCC. These Christ-like attitudes are not natural, but supernatural.
  1. Consider reducing your time on divisive social media platforms and news outlets that foster and foment pride, division, and slander.

In Christ, and for His glory to the ends of the earth, through His church, pastor ryan

This of course is seen most clearly in Ephesians 2:11-17, where Christ, at the very cost of His life, united those who were former enemies in Himself through the cross, “so making peace.”

[2] Proverbs 12:18 (NET) – “Speaking recklessly is like the thrusts of a sword, but the words of the wise bring healing.”

[3] As confusing as that sentence is, it was intentionally crafted this way to encourage us to re-read it.