Our theme for this conference is reform in Church and Nation, so in thinking about these Bible readings my mind turned to Josiah – the archetypal reforming King under the Old Covenant. Jesus, the King of kings, of course, is the supreme model of leadership whose teaching we must attend to and whose example we are to follow in the power of his Spirit. And tomorrow I want us to pay attention to the scorching teaching of Jesus relating to the Pharisees and the teachers of the law.
Gresham Machen's classic study from nearly a century ago, Christianity and Liberalism argues persuasively that there are, in the life of the Church, broadly defined really two different religions, both calling themselves Christianity and using the language of Christian faith. One is apostolic, biblical, historic Christian faith. The other is liberalism. They are radically different in a quite literal sense – that is, they have different roots, and therefore different fruits. He says:
"… the great redemptive religion which has always been known as Christianity is battling against a totally diverse type of religious belief, which is only the more destructive of the Christian faith because it makes use of traditional Christian terminology. This modern non-redemptive religion is called "modernism" or "liberalism". Both names are unsatisfactory."
And he continues:
"… the Christian religion … is certainly not the religion of the modern liberal Church, but a message of divine grace, almost forgotten now, as it was in the middle ages, but destined to burst forth once more in God's good time, in a new Reformation, and bring light and freedom to mankind."
The message of liberalism is superficially highly seductive. But it cannot help us under the onslaught of sin and evil, and the death and judgement that follow. In Richard Niebuhr's oft-quoted words, the heart of liberalism is that:
"A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross."
Machen wants us to be clear-eyed about these two different world views struggling to the death in the life of the Church. But he also wants us to be discerning about how these clashing world views play out in the hearts and minds of those who call themselves Christians. Because these two trees with such different root systems are entwined not only in the church but also in individual lives.
So many have an inconsistent and incoherent faith, often without even realising it. It is a danger to which we are all prone. With the branches all tangled, it is sometimes hard to see where one tree starts and the other ends. We need to trace the branches back to their roots in one direction, and to their fruits in the other, if we are to be clear what's what. There is a wide range of degrees of entanglement.
What is more, some who are truly trusting Christ, regenerate children of their heavenly father, indwelt by the Spirit, will nonetheless be all entangled with the pernicious branches of liberalism. And others who in the final analysis have no true and saving knowledge of Christ will nonetheless wrap themselves in much of the language of the apostolic faith, even if the meanings they give it are very different from that intended by the apostles. So we need to be clear about the existence of these two opposing religions entangled together, but also careful and discerning about their degrees of influence in any given situation or individual.
What is it that helps us to cultivate that clear-eyed discernment? Soaking ourselves in the Scriptures. And in particular, as there is nothing new under the sun, and the spiritual struggle for truth is constantly present among God's people in one form or another, the Books of Kings, which are history from God's perspective, give us a valuable framework for seeing how this struggle plays out.
Now you'll see from my outline that I have three headings and also what I'm calling a 'divine assessment framework'. If that reminds you of Ofsted or something, well perhaps that's not too far wrong. But we'll come to that shortly.
1. Josiah's reform is a case study in godly leadership: we must not settle for anything less than Christlikeness
2 Kings 22.1:
"Josiah was eight years old when he began to reign…"
He was a boy king. We're remembering this year the lighting of the fire of the Reformation in the 16th century. And it's hardly surprising that the boy king Edward 6th who came to the throne at the age of 9 on the death of his father Henry 8th was compared with Josiah – not least by Archbishop Cranmer at his coronation. Or rather Josiah was held up as an example for the young king to follow. And indeed his short reign – he died 6 years later – opened the door to long awaited reform of the Church of England.
But Josiah is not only an example for kings – young or otherwise.
Remember that there is a line that runs from the leadership of the kings of Israel – the shepherds of Israel to use the biblical metaphor – through the excoriating judgement of their failure in Ezekiel 34, and the promise that God himself will come and shepherd his people, to the arrival of the Good Shepherd, the perfect God-man King Jesus, and then to the ministry of his under-shepherds who are called to leadership in the church. I vividly remember reading Ezekiel as a student, guided by John Taylor's Tyndale Commentary, and undergoing almost a second conversion through its searing presentation of the holiness of God and the hope of redemption.
We are all called to exercise whatever leadership and influence God calls us to following the highest examples that the Bible presents to us. We cannot – dare not – settle for anything less than Christlikeness. And Josiah is just such a high example. 2 Kings gives this assessment of Josiah – so this is a God's eye view of his reign:
"And [Josiah] did what was right in the eyes of the Lord and walked in all the way of David his father, and he did not turn aside to the right or to the left." 2 Kings 22.2
"Before [Josiah] there was no king like him, who turned to the Lord with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his might, according to all the Law of Moses, nor did any like him arise after him." 2 Kings 23.25:
Of course all our following of high examples is by grace. It is all in the power of the Holy Spirit. It can only be via the permanent humiliation of truly grasping that holiness of God; and the depth of our sin; and the wonder of God's saving grace in Christ; and the power of the indwelling Spirit. Only in this way can we hope to see the beginnings of Christ-like leadership in our own lives. But that is what we are called to. Imitate Josiah. Imitate the apostle Paul. Imitate Jesus, the Good Shepherd.
2. Josiah's reform needs to be understood in the context of the divine assessment framework in 1 and 2 Kings: we must be self-aware, discerning in relation to others, watchful lest we fall
One note: we need to be clear about the meaning of one phrase that crops up again and again in the Books of Kings and becomes part of a kind of litmus test of obedience and Godliness. It's the phrase "the high places". What were the high places? They were literally that, but more particularly they were locations of altars used for sacrifices. And the high places became the locations of choice for sacrifices to pagan gods by idolatrous Israelites. So they became a watchword for the worst kind of idolatry.
So, to what I have called:
THE DIVINE ASSESSMENT FRAMEWORK
Every king in 1 and 2 Kings is given a brief a pithy summing up – a divine assessment. Josiah comes into sharp focus when we understand this framework, so I want to take you through, with just one example at each point. But it's worth taking the time to listen to these divine assessments, and ask ourselves where we fit. It's all there on our outline.
1. THE BASIC BINARY JUDGEMENT: whose side are we and others on?
A. Doing what is right in the eyes of the Lord
David is the benchmark. 1 Samuel 13.14:
"The Lord has sought out a man after his own heart, and the Lord has commanded him to be prince over his people..."
And 1 Kings 15.5:
"David did what was right in the eyes of the Lord and did not turn aside from anything that he commanded him all the days of his life, except in the matter of Uriah the Hittite."
B. Doing what is evil in the eyes of the Lord
Jeroboam is the benchmark (1 Kings12.28-31)
"So the king [Jeroboam] took counsel and made two calves of gold. And he said to the people, "You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough. Behold your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt." And he set one in Bethel, and the other he put in Dan. Then this thing became a sin, for the people went as far as Dan to be before one. He also made temples on high places…"
So that's the basic binary judgment. Then there is:
2. THE SCALE FROM RIGHT TO EVIL: where are we on the scale? Jesus calls us to be A1!
A. Doing what is right
- 1. Initiator of radical reform:
Hezekiah - 2 Kings 18.3-6:
"And [Hezekiah] did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, according to all that David his father had done. He removed the high places and broke the pillars and cut down the Asherah… He trusted in the Lord, the God of Israel, so that there was none like him among all the kings of Judah after him, nor among those who were before him. For he held fast to the Lord. He did not depart from following him, but kept the commandments that the Lord commanded Moses. And the Lord was with him"
- 2. Initiator of partial reform:
Asa - 1 Kings 15.11-14:
"And Asa did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, as David his father had done. He put away the male cult prostitutes out of the land and removed all the idols that his fathers had made ... But the high places were not taken away. Nevertheless, the heart of Asa was wholly true to the Lord all his days."
- 3. Follower of reform:
Jehoshaphat - 1 Kings 22.43:
"[Jehoshaphat] walked in all the way of Asa his father. He did not turn aside from it, doing what was right in the sight of the Lord. Yet the high places were not taken away, and the people still sacrificed and made offerings on the high places."
B. Doing what is evil
- 4. Follower in idolatry and immorality:
Take Amon as an example of this. Amon was Josiah's father - 2 Kings 21.20-22:
"And [Amon] did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, as Manasseh his father had done. He walked in all the way in which his father walked and served the idols that his father served and worshipped them. He abandoned the Lord, the God of his fathers, and did not walk in the way of the Lord."
- 5. Initiator of idolatry and immorality
Rehoboam - 1 Kings 14.22-24:
"And Judah [this is under the rule of Rehoboam] did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, and they provoked him to jealousy with their sins that they committed, more than all that their fathers had done. For they also built for themselves high places and pillars and Asherim on every high hill and under every green tree, and there were also male cult prostitutes in the land. They did according to all the abominations of the nations that the Lord drove out before the people of Israel."
- 6. Initiator of extreme idolatry and immorality
Manasseh was Josiah's grandfather - 2 Kings 21.2-6, 16:
"And [Manasseh] did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, according to the despicable practices of the nations whom the Lord drove out before the people of Israel. For he rebuilt the high places that Hezekiah his father had destroyed, and he erected altars for Baal and made an Asherah, as Ahab king of Israel had done, and worshipped all the host of heaven and served them. And he built altars in the house of the Lord, of which the Lord had said, 'In Jerusalem will I put my name.' … And he burned his son as an offering and used fortune-telling and omens and dealt with mediums and with necromancers. He did much evil in the sight of the Lord, provoking him to anger."
"Moreover, Manasseh shed very much innocent blood, till he had filled Jerusalem from one end to another, besides the sin that he made Judah to sin so that they did what was evil in the sight of the Lord."
3. THE POSSIBILITY OF MOVING UP AND DOWN THE SCALE
The disturbing example of Solomon.
This is how he starts - 1 Kings 3.2-3:
"The people were sacrificing at the high places, however, because no house had yet been built for the name of the Lord. Solomon loved the Lord, walking in the statutes of David his father, only he sacrificed and made offerings at the high places."
And this is how he ends - 1 Kings 11.4-6:
"For when Solomon was old his wives turned away his heart after other gods, and his heart was not wholly true to the Lord his God, as was the heart of David his father. For Solomon went after Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and after Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites. So Solomon did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and did not wholly follow the Lord, as David his father had done."
When it comes to leadership in the Church, we'll be somewhere on the New Covenant equivalent of that scale. Jesus is looking for those who will be A1. It'll all be by grace, in the power of the Spirit. But that's what he's looking for. And that's what our times need. So we need to learn from young Josiah.
3. Josiah's reform began with himself and moved out to the Temple and the nation: we must begin with ourselves, and seek courage to work for the reform of the Church and the nation
What shape did Josiah's reformation take?
He repaired the Temple. That's in 2 Kings 22.3-7. In our New Testament terms, the equivalent has got to be reforming, renewing and growing the church.
He listened to God's word. His desire to repair the Temple lead directly to the rediscovery of the "Book of the Law" – probably Deuteronomy. And it was spiritual dynamite. 2 Kings 22.10:
"Then Shaphan the secretary told the king, "Hilkiah the priest has given me a book." And Shaphan read it before the king."
Josiah humbled himself. 22.11:
"When the king heard the words of the Book of the Law, he tore his clothes."
And 22.19 records how through the prophetess Huldah the Lord said to Josiah:
"Regarding the words that you have heard, because your heart was penitent, and you humbled yourself before the Lord, when you heard how I spoke against this place and against its inhabitants, that they should become a desolation and a curse, and you have torn your clothes and wept before me, I also have heard you, declares the Lord."
His heart was the key. His heart was penitent. King though he was, he humbled himself.
He obeyed God's Word by reforming. 2 Kings 23.4:
"And the king commanded Hilkiah the high priest and the priests of the second order and the keepers of the threshold to bring out of the temple of the Lord all the vessels made for Baal, for Asherah, and for all the host of heaven. He burned them outside Jerusalem in the fields of the Kidron and carried their ashes to Bethel."
And that was just a start. He removed the idols. He stopped the immorality. He destroyed the high places – including those established by Jeroboam himself in Israel in the north.
And what is more, he influenced the people to reform. 2 Kings 23.3:
"And the king stood by the pillar and made a covenant before the Lord, to walk after the Lord and to keep his commandments and his testimonies and his statutes with all his heart and all his soul, to perform the words of this covenant that were written in this book. And all the people joined in the covenant."
And he reinstated the long-neglected Passover celebration in obedience to God's Word.
It was a comprehensive reformation of the spiritual life of his nation. It began with him, with his own heart, and moved out to the Temple and the nation.
We need to take him as our model, transposed into New Covenant terms. We must begin with ourselves, and seek courage to work for the reform of the Church and the nation. That's our agenda. We may feel like eight year-old boys in the face of the enormity of the challenge. But the Lord Jesus Christ is with us. And that is all we need.
Lord Jesus please give us grace to humble ourselves before you, and to tremble at your word, and to follow you faithfully, for the sake of our church and our nation, as Josiah your servant did. Amen.