In the case of Jehoshaphat, his reforms produce something far more interesting and engaging and serious than what had previously captured Judah’s attention. In what we might consider rather mundane detail, in commissioning teachers to go to the towns and people with an open Bible, this King was shepherding the people wisely and lovingly. Going back to the Bible isn’t a static process or a regressive move. Accepting all those profound ideas about the Trinity and atonement and the incarnation are treasures to wonder and share, not hide away in the too-hard drawer.
Church must change! Bring on the great reset! Make Church great again!
Sloganeering can sound like a clarion call or like cringe. This self-absorbed need for redefining, refreshing and relevance has captured the attention of many strands of Christian thought and Church growth networks. It may sound new, fresh and revitalising, but there is rarely anything new under the sun. While Churches diagnose the issues with as much concurrence as a circus of entrepreneurs, evangelists and the local university student union, and while answers are equally disparate, there is a semblance of agreement that in Australia our churches have taken some missteps, while others have leapt over the precipice and into the void.
We’ve had several visitors to church recently who are struck by the fact as a church we read the Bible and preach through the Bible, and we pray. Apparently ,many Melbourne churches don’t see the need to do this. My question for Melbourne churches is this, what are you doing? Who are you listening to? What are you teaching?
As a Church, we’re currently preaching through 1 and 2 Chronicles. After 18 years at Mentone Baptist Church, we were yet to explore this 2 volume work. I decided that 2023 is the year to do so. As I read, prepared, and preached I noticed that one of the recurring themes in Chronicles is this topic of reformation. While aspects of reform are to fore in many of the sermons, we gave it special attention for 2 weeks as we examined the life and times of one of the key reformers in Judah’s history, King Jehoshaphat.
Other than King Solomon, more chapters are dedicated to Jehoshaphat’s reign than any other King in 2 Chronicles. That fact alone caused me to take a good look at his rule and the events that took place under him.
Jehoshaphat was a reformer. There are principles and lessons about his reforms that are useful as we consider what it means to reform the church today. As you’ll see, these characteristics are not unique to Jehoshaphat, these features are found consistently throughout the Bible and yet they find vivid expression in this Old Testament period.
The word ‘reform’ is used in politics and economics and law and education. When reform is announced, it means there’s something wrong, the system is broken or out of date and needs reforming. It requires fixing or renewing.
Reform is famously used to describe one of the great Christian movements of history to which we owe so much today, the Reformation: with Martin Luther, John Calvin, Thomas Cranmer, and best of all, the Baptists! What happened is that throughout the 16th Century, Christians living in different cities and speaking different languages were convicted by God’s word that some of the official teachings and morals of Rome were in error and out of step with the Bible. Across Europe, people went back to the Bible, ad fontes, and God began to reform and renew thinking, theology, education, civics, ethics and more. The Bible again changed the world.
This notion of reform didn’t however first appear in 16th Century Europe. We find reforms taking place in the Bible, and the reign of Jehoshaphat is one such example.
1. Every New Generation Needs Reform
Jehoshaphat is among many Kings of Israel and Judah who understood that each new generation need reforming. While he doesn’t initiate his reforms as quickly as someone like Hezekiah, he nonetheless commits to returning Judah to God’s covenantal promises. This is set in stark contrast to his northern contemporary, King Ahab, who flew the flag of progress and change.
17:3 The Lord was with Jehoshaphat because he followed the ways of his father David before him. He did not consult the Baals 4 but sought the God of his father and followed his commands rather than the practices of Israel. 5 The Lord established the kingdom under his control; and all Judah brought gifts to Jehoshaphat, so that he had great wealth and honor. 6 His heart was devoted to the ways of the Lord; furthermore, he removed the high places and the Asherah poles from Judah.
Jehoshaphat might be King but he understands God is God and his role under God is to serve and obey him. So begins the process of removing errant practices and ideas and returning the people to God’s revealed will in his word.
Reform isn’t about maintaining dead religion or resisting the future or pining for the glory days of film noir or art deco. The Chronicler explains reformation is about devotion to God and a heart for His people. We read how Jehoshaphat’s heart was devoted to God’s commands. There is no distinction for Jehoshaphat between seeking God with his heart and following God’s words. Heart and mind, attitude and action, belong together and move in unison when we love God. We don’t choose between loving God and obeying the Bible. We don’t choose to be a heart Christian or a mind Christian.
In loving God, Jehoshaphat leads Judah in reformation in these important ways:
He sought God and followed God’s commands
He removes idols
He raises up teachers to teach God’s words to the people of God
He appoints judges for the towns and regions
Jehoshaphat’s reforms include an aspect of the negative, saying no to false worship and removing practices and objects that distorted or altogether replaced the true worship of God. His reforms are also positive, sending out teachers and judges who will bring the people back to God’s words and cause them to live under the covenant.
7 In the third year of his reign he sent his officials … 9 They taught throughout Judah, taking with them the Book of the Law of the Lord; they went around to all the towns of Judah and taught the people. (17:7,9)
5 He appointed judges in the land, in each of the fortified cities of Judah. 6 He told them, “Consider carefully what you do, because you are not judging for mere mortals but for the Lord, who is with you whenever you give a verdict. 7 Now let the fear of the Lord be on you. Judge carefully, for with the Lord our God there is no injustice or partiality or bribery.” (19:5-7)
2. We Move Forward by Going Back to God’s Word
Jehoshaphat leads the people not forward and away from God, but forward with God by going back to the word. He is a word-centred leader which is evidenced by him sending out teachers to all the cities and towns of Judah, men who took the Scriptures with them and taught the people.
One of the myths embedded in some missiology and church planting manuals is that to reach people today we need to find new ways and innovations. If I collected $10 for every time I hear talks and blogs and books advocating fresh, relevant and powerful ideas for churches, I’d soon be in a position to buy the Vatican!
Of course, not everything new in the world and not every innovation is bad and wrong; that would be silly. Mission and Church have a language. I don’t simply mean linguistic and verbal language, but there are communicative signs and symbols in the way we do music and the way we organise church meeting places and the way we connect the gospel with people’s lives and cultural moments. But attached to many plans and dreams for the future, is a hubris and misstep that believes reaching people for Christ today requires new methods and new messages.
New is superior. New is more interesting. New is more authentic.
Of course, this vibe runs deep through many facets of our culture: think art, music, movies, and even ethics. Ethics today is like experimental art. In places like Melbourne, what’s noticed and praised are new expressions and new definitions for those big questions of life, ‘who am I’ and ‘what’s life about’. He old old story lacks gravitas, it doesn’t sell tickets, or so we assume.
This thinking is of course myopic. Plenty of new ideas are also disturbing and dangerous. Think of the subject of the movie Oppenheimer: the atomic bomb!
In fact, ecclesial commitment to innovation often creates new problems rather than fixing old ones. The consumer bent model of church that provides a cinematic experience or the moshe pit frenzy, the slick preaching that feels like a Netflix special, or the stripped back lounge church where we don’t preach or sing or do Bible because that creates awkward conversation.
Neither am I not arguing for traditionalism or conservatism. We don’t need to clean out the organ pipes and take classes to understand thee and thou. The tie is not more faithful than the t-shirt, or jeans over the dress. It’s not that one hour on Sunday is holier than 2, or a 50-minute exposition more faithful than 20. Within God’s given shape for church, there is great flexibility and freedom. And yet Jehoshaphat understood that faith has particular content and contour which shapes all of life.
The shape and trajectory of the local church is far less glamorous and sounds way less cool and exciting and all the other adjectives we use to appeal to our congregation’s hearts, time and money. And yet, it is far more substantial.