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An Altar Called “Witness”



Joshua 22:1-34; John 17:20-23

October 1, 2017 ● Download this sermon (PDF)

Congregation of Christ: The other day, I had a conversation with a package delivery man who asked me about our church. I said that we’re a Reformed church and we are part of a federation or denomination of churches. He then said that he doesn’t believe in denominations because the church of Christ must be united.

So, are denominations wrong and not useful? Is it useful for Big Springs Community to belong to our federation called the United Reformed Churches? We might think of denominations as a restaurant menu, the main entrées being Presbyterian, Reformed, Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran and Pentecostal. Within these main denominations are churches that differ in some doctrines, worship and practices. These variations are like sides in an entrée such as soup, salad, fries, potatoes that make the entrée more pleasing and flavorful.

If the delivery man attends a non-denominational church, that church is in itself a “denomination of one,” because if that church believes in the same doctrines, worship and practices as other churches, why should it exist? Why not just have one big megachurch that believe the same things? Denominations and single churches are part of church history because of different interpretations of Scripture, especially difficult passages.

From the very beginning, Christianity has divided because of controversial passages concerning salvation, baptism, prophecy, church government and many other issues. In the early 4th century, a man named Arius taught that Jesus Christ was only a created being at first, and made into a god only later. In 1054 A.D., the Eastern Church led by Constantinople in Turkey separated from the Western Church under Rome because of a doctrine about whether God alone or God and Christ sent the Holy Spirit. Then almost 500 years ago, the Protestant Reformation led by Martin Luther divided the Western Church into Catholics and Protestants. From then on, Protestants divided into countless denominations and churches because of different interpretations of the Scripture.

What many non-denominational churches don’t realize is that denominations are good for Christianity in many ways. One is that doctrine may divide, but like-minded churches also unite because of doctrine. Reformed and Presbyterian churches are united in the Reformed creeds and confessions. Another benefit of denominations is that each church is accountable to all the others in the same denomination. Our church is accountable to our overseeing church, Trinity URC in Visalia, and in turn, Trinity URC is accountable to all the other churches in the Pacific Northwest Classis. The third benefit is that churches in a denomination learn and grow together. Pastors can consult one another and share resources about preaching, teaching and counseling. A fourth benefit is that churches in denominations enrich one another because of their racial, social, economic, historical and educational diversity.

Our text today is about the danger of disunity that the nation of Israel –and Christianity – faced in its beginnings. Because the eastern two-and-a-half tribes built an altar on their land, the western tribes almost went to war against them. It was only resolved when the purpose of this altar was made clear after the eastern and western tribes met face-to-face to discuss the matter. This episode serves as an illustration – to us in the church and to those outside the church – of the importance of unity in the church and of settling disputes in the church in a Biblical manner.

Commendation for Faithfulness

Verses 1-9 of Joshua 22 tell us of Joshua’s commendation and release of the tribes of Reuben, Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh. Recall that back in Joshua 1, before Israel crossed the Jordan River into Canaan, Joshua reminded them of their vow to help the other nine and a half tribes to conquer Canaan (1:12-15). It was a pledge they gave earlier to Moses (Num 32:20-22). So these two and a half tribes contributed 40,000 soldiers (4:13) to the war in the east, a land that they would not have any part to inherit. Moses commanded this to keep the unity among the 12 tribes. But Moses also promised that they would return to their wives and children in their western inheritance after the Canaan campaign is over.

Now after several years campaigning with the other tribes, Joshua fulfills the promise made by Moses. But before Joshua released them, he commended them and at the same time exhorted them. He commended them for their obedience to God’s Word through Moses and through him. But he also exhorted them in verse 5 to obey the law of Moses, “and to walk in all his ways and to keep his commandments and to cling to him and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul.” Lastly, Joshua sent them away with a blessing.

We should notice this example of commending where commendation is due: pastors who diligently preach, teach and counsel Biblically; church leaders who make sure that the worship service and other church events are in order; women who prepare lunch and refreshments and clean up after; women who decorate the church for Thanksgiving and Christmas; men who maintain the church building and grounds; those who prepare, edit and print the bulletin; and those who call or visit the sick and sorrowful to encourage and pray for them. A simple word of thanks for their labor of love will be an encouragement to them.

Concern About an Altar . . .

Soon after the two-and-a-half tribes went back to their eastern lands, they built a big altar on the edge of the Jordan River, most likely on the western side. So it must have been also visible from the west. The western tribes were angered enough at this, so they gathered at Shiloh were the only altar is located. They wanted to attack the eastern tribes, but they first send a delegation led by Phinehas, the son of the high priest, to complain against this altar. Who is Phinehas? He was the one who summarily executed with his spear an Israelite man and the Midianite woman he took for his wife (Num 25:1-9). Great fear must have fallen on the eastern tribes when he arrived, as he might also punish them with death for building this altar.

But why all the anger against the eastern altar? Deuteronomy 12 gives us the answer. There we read God’s commandment that Israel must worship with their sacrifices only “at the place that the Lord will choose in one of [the] tribes” (12:5, 13-14). What was God’s reason for commanding this? Because the Canaanites in the land performed their idolatrous worship in many places, “on the high mountains and on the hills and under every green tree.” When they settle in the land, Israel was to destroy all these places, “tear down their altars and dash in pieces their pillars and burn their Asherim with fire . . . chop down the carved images of their gods and destroy their name out of that place” (12:2-3).

Therefore, the western tribes were concerned about this “other” altar built by the easterners, because they assumed that the easterners were going to worship other gods in addition to Yahweh. The western tribes remember well what happened in Joshua 7 when Achan violated God’s commandment not to take any spoils from Jericho: God almost destroyed the whole nation. They also remember the time in the wilderness when many men took Moabite wives and then worshiped their god Baal. So the Lord was angry against all Israel, and killed 24,000 of them (Num 25:1-5). In these examples cited by Phinehas, God’s anger burned not just against the person or persons who violated his commandment, but against “the whole congregation of Israel” (22:18). The western tribes had a valid reason for assuming that the easterners will be worshiping pagan idols in their altar because the eastern lands were formerly inhabited by pagan Midianites and Moabites.

We see here that God’s commandments concerning worship are to be strictly followed. In verse 22 and in many other places in the book, the frequent refrain is that Joshua “kept all that Moses the servant of the LORD commanded and have obeyed all that the Lord commanded.” We who are worshipers of the true God should heed this warning that all that we preach, teach, sing and pray in our worship service must be in accordance only with God’s Word. We are not to add to or take away from God’s Word. We are to heed the admonitions of our brothers and sisters if we are straying away from Biblical worship. And we must be vigilant in making sure that our church observes only what God has commanded and taught.

. . . of Witness to Unity

After Phinehas laid out his charges against the eastern tribes, it was time for the eastern tribes to defend themselves. What the westerners assumed was wrong. They never intended to use their altar to worship other “gods.” What was the altar for? It was for two things: (1) as a memorial for their own children so that even though they lived across the river from Canaan, they were still part of God’s covenant people Israel; and (2) as a “witness” to their unity with the rest of Israel. If future generations of the western tribes say to the future generations of the eastern tribes that they are not part of God’s covenant people, they would show them this altar and 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” (22:28).

Upon hearing this defense, Phinehas and the other leaders of the western tribes were pleased, and said, “Today we know that the LORD is in our midst, because you have not committed this breach of faith against the LORD” (22:31). Civil war was averted. Instead, “the people of Israel blessed God” (22:33). They may well have sung our Call to Worship in Psalm 133, “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity! . . . For there the Lord has commanded the blessing, life forevermore.” So they called the altar “Witness,” a witness for generations to come of the unity of God’s covenant people Israel.

Dear Friends, in John 13:35, our Lord Jesus Christ told his disciples, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” The altar called “Witness” was a witness to all the nations around them that all of Israel in the west and east are united as one nation and will be protected by the Lord God. So also the love we show for one another is also a witness to our community that we are Christians.

Again, in John 17:21, in his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane before he was crucified, Jesus prayed for unity among his disciples, “that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”

When Aaron was consecrated to God, he was anointed with oil, signifying that God had set him apart as his holy high priest (Lev 8:12). Precious oil poured on his head dripped down to his beard. He then represented the whole nation before God in all their sacrifices and offerings in the tabernacle. The people were united to him as their one worship leader. The oil poured on Aaron’s head down to his beard reminds the psalmist of Mount Hermon, high and snow-capped. Compared to Mount Zion where the temple was, Mount Hermon calls to mind God’s blessing Israel with rain and snow and relief from the heat.

What the psalmist sees in Aaron and all the other high priests is this: when the covenant people of God are united to God through the high priest, God’s blessing falls upon them. Since Jesus is now our Great High Priest, he blesses our church when we are united in one faith, one God, one Lord, and one Spirit. Blessings come when we love and care for one another, when we put the interests of others above our own, which Jesus did when he came down from his glorious throne in heaven to a shameful death on the cruel cross.

Let us be reminded of this unity as we partake of the elements of the Lord’s Supper this morning, as Paul says, “Because there is one bread, we who are many are cone body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Cor 10:17). Therefore, one of our forms for communion says this truth, “As grain is ground to prepare one loaf of bread, and as many grapes are pressed together to produce wine, we who by true faith are incorporated into Christ shall be one body, through Christian love, for our dear Savior Christ’s sake, who has loved us so greatly that we might show his love toward one another, not only in words but also in deeds.”

Therefore, when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, be mindful of three things: (1) we remember our Savior Jesus Christ’s death on the cross for all our sins; (2) our souls are nourished and strengthened; and (3) we demonstrate our unity as one body of Christ.

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