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Sacrifice: The story of Jephthah

Preached by Dr. Gene Scott on July 18, 1976
     
     “And Jephthah vowed a vow unto the Lord, and said, if thou shalt without fail deliver the children of Ammon into mine hands, then it shall be, that whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, shall surely be the LORD’S, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.” - Judges 11:30-31
      I WANT TO FOCUS ON SACRIFICE TODAY. The word sacrifice comes from Latin and means at its root “to make something sacred.” There is a strange story in Judges 11. It is the story of Jephthah. Some people think Jephthah shouldn’t be in the Bible, but God confounds those who have that thought. In Hebrews 11, in the roll call of men and women of whom “God is not ashamed to be called their God,” those “Of whom the world was not worthy,” God specifically names Jephthah. There are those we call “giants” in the Bible who are not named in that chapter; they are just swept up into one phrase about all of the prophets. But God names Jephthah.
      Jephthah was a man born to bear a stigma that was not his own fault. He was of illegitimate birth, and his family rejected him. His brethren said, “You will not inherit in our house,” and they cast him out of his home. Early in life, he was deprived of love that ought to have been his portion from his family. (Judges 11:2)
      Years passed, and the Ammonites, enemies of God’s people, attacked Israel, including Gilead, the family out of which Jephthah had been born. In their desperate need against these enemies, the elders of Gilead cried for help. Jephthah’s reputation as a man of war got their attention. They asked him to come and help them in their time of stress and lead them to battle. Jephthah might have refused, remembering their rejection. But he lived in a day when patriotism to the people of God and their cause was synonymous with faith in God, for they were God’s chosen as His oracles. Jephthah agreed to help.
      Anyone who has ever gone to Sunday school and heard about Jesus knows more about God than Jephthah knew. Anyone who has lived in this age, with the Word revealed and Jesus revealed and the Holy Spirit available in fullness, has a greater knowledge of God and what God wants than Jephthah had. He was a child of his age. In that day, everyone did what was right in his own eyes. (Judges 17:6) The Bible wasn’t fully written.
      Before Jephthah went to battle, he did something characteristic of his age: he “vowed a vow.” (Judges 11:30) People have criticized the vow that Jephthah made. But I want you to notice that it says in Judges 11:29, “Then the Spirit of the LORD came upon Jephthah.” It is in the verse immediately following that upon-ness of the Holy Spirit over him that he makes this vow. He “vowed a vow unto the LORD, and said, If thou shalt be, that whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, shall surely be the LORD”s. . .” Circle the conjunction there, because we will refer to it later. “Shall surely be the LORD’S, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.”
     Jephthah went to battle and he won, and this chapter indicates that God gave him the victory in part because of his vow. If you can, place yourself inside his skin and put flesh and blood on these Bible characters. Imagine his joy! He has won a great victory; now he is heading home.
      As he comes over a rise in the hill, you read in verse 34, “Jephthah came to Mizpeh unto his house, and, behold, his daughter came out to meet him with timbrels and with dances.” I don’t think God ever wastes a word in His book. The next line is very important: “And she was his only child; beside her he had neither son nor daughter.” Rejected by his family, deprived of love that ought to have been his portion when he was a boy, forced to make a way alone in the desert, I have an idea that this child had become the joy of his life.
      Put flesh and blood on him, you who have children. The joy of victory is replaced with the bitterness of what is happening. He remembers his vow, “And it came to pass, when he saw her, that he rent his clothes, and said, alas, my daughter! Thou hast brought me very low, and thou art one of them that trouble me: for I have opened my mouth unto the LORD, and I cannot go back.” He remembered the vow: “whatsoever cometh from of the doors of my house . . . it will be the LORD’S, and I will offer it . . .”
     This little girl is a heroine. In that heathen age, she gives evidence of recognizing a willingness to share her part in the responsibilities of her parents toward God. She asked one small favor: that she might perform a ritual of the day. And then she willingly submitted to the vow.
      The story has been much criticized and surrounded by confusion. I have heard people criticize Jephthah’s theology, saying, “God would never expect a sacrifice of that nature from anybody.” I am not here to defend or even debate the theology. Remember, anybody who has heard the story of Christ has a fuller knowledge of God than Jephthah had. All I know is that God smiled on Jephthah and immortalized him as one of the heroes of faith, of whom the Scripture says God was not ashamed to be called his God, and he is one of whom the world was not worthy.
      Why? There is a spiritual meaning in what he did that I think is the clue to God’s attitude and His whole purpose. The word I said we are going to emphasize today is the clue: sacrifice. Hear me closely, because there are a lot of different motives injected into the church world today to get Christian action. Jephthah, living in the desert in ancient times and without the full revelation of God, realized a law in the spiritual world. I can state the principle in a sentence: if you ever do anything for God, it is going to cost you something.
      I see people motivated to come to God in today’s world because God is going to make them rich, or because some very popular movie star, or athlete, or politician has come to God. But my Bible shows me you ought to come to God because of who He is; and that when you come to God, if you ever do anything for Him, it is going to cost you something. That is the message of Jephthah. Whatever else you can say about Jephthah, he wanted to accomplish something for God, and he laid himself on the line. He said, “God, if you will help me do this, I will do something in return.” When it hit him at the end, he realized the price. He got the victory, but it cost him something.
      Notice also that Jephthah had the spirit of integrity. He did what lots of people do: he opened his mouth to the Lord, and he made a promise. Then he discovered it is easier to say things than it is to do them. Did you ever learn that? It is very easy, in the passion of a moment, to make a commitment . . . but then the test comes. When the test came, Jephthah said, “I have opened my mouth unto the LORD, and I cannot go back.” (Judges 11:35)
      I have seen people in times of need ask God for help. God does His part and then payday comes on our side of the bargain, and we try to postpone it or rationalize it away and say, “God didn’t really expect that much from me.” In a great time of need, we say, “God, if You will help, we will do this for You.” I just wonder how many in the sound of my voice have made past commitments to God in times of need; and then, when He straightened things out for us, we just kept putting them off.
      Notice, I am not talking about some casual kind of utterance. Many people beat themselves over the head for commitments they never should have made: it is better not to make a vow than to make one and break it. But this was a special kind of vow. Jephthah did not just make a vow, he made a vow that called upon God, and God did His part of the bargain. After the fact, after God had already evidenced His response and had given him a victory, then the vow comes into focus. Jephthah evidenced sacrifice and integrity; Jephthah kept his word.
     
      That is all there is about Jephthah. That is why I think he got into Hebrews 11: He tuned in on some things that God responds to. God is an honest God. I believe that God responds to a spirit of sacrifice, and I believe that God backs a spirit of honesty, one that keeps commitments.
      I want to deal with one thing before I leave Jephthah and then I am going to weave this thread of sacrifice to a close. Some people worry: was that little girl really put on an altar as a burnt offering? Look at verse 31. Jephthah says in his vow, “whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, shall surely be the LORD’s and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.”
     Some of you will have in the margins of your Bible an alternative translation, for the Hebrew allows an alternative: the word or. There are many of us who believe that Jephthah said, “it shall surely be the LORD’S, or I will offer if up for a burnt offering.” Verse 40 says, after he fulfilled the vow, “That the daughters of Israel went yearly to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in a year.” Again, most Bibles will have in the margin an alternative translation, “That the daughters of Israel went from year to year to talk with the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in a year.”
     Some feel that this injection of or rather than and gave Jephthah a choice: instead of placing his daughter on the altar as a burnt offering, he could place her in the temple thereafter to serve the Lord. Instead of her being dead, and the daughters of Israel going to lament her death, four days a year they could go to the temple and talk with the girl who had been given to serve God. But in either case, from Jephthah’s perspective, she was gone.
      I believe Jephthah could have prevented what happened, but he was an honest man. I think he made a secret vow, otherwise somebody would have made sure something came out of that door other than his daughter. And because it was a secret vow, he could have gotten out of it; but he didn’t. Jephthah is inscribed in the roll call of heroes because God saw in this man something He looks for, a spirit of sacrifice. It is a law written in to God’s book. It is “gentle Jesus” who said, “He that saveth his life shall lose it; and he that loseth his life for my sake and the gospel’s shall gain it unto life eternal.” (Mark 8:35)
      Years later in the Old Testament, Jeroboam became king over 10 of the northern tribes of Israel. He saw his people go back from his new kingdom down to Jerusalem across the border to worship. As he watched them go back into Jerusalem, he got worried. He thought, “These people keep crossing the boundary, coming out of Samaria to the north and going back down to Jerusalem to worship in the temple there. If they keep worshipping long enough, it may put the people together again; and I will lose my kingdom.” So he conceived a plan to stop it. The Scripture says he put images at Dan and Bethel. Then he went to the people with a foolproof appeal. He said, “It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem. Let me provide temples for you close at home.” Take the sacrifice out of it; take the pain out of it. The people responded to that appeal, and Jeroboam became known as the king who led God’s people into sin. (1 Kings 12:27-30)
      Our King is the Captain or the first-goer of our salvation. (Hebrews 2:10) It is one of those beautiful contrasts in God’s book: a carnal king out of tune with God’s heart says, “It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalam;” whereas our King, “when the time was come that he should be received up, he steadfastly set his care to go to Jerusalem.” (Luke 9:51) He set His face like a flint, because He knew what would happen in Jerusalem: He was going to die there.
     “Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of faith . . . let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us . . . and run with patience the race that is set before us, Looking unto Jesus . . .” Lest you lag in the race because of the pain, consider that you “have not yet resisted unto blood, striving against sin.” (Hebrews 12:1-4)
     
      The foundation stones of the city of the Lamb have the names of the apostles in them. (Revelation 21:14) I would like to have my name there, too. Wouldn’t you? Well, they paid a price. Jesus said to them, “Ye shall be witnesses unto me.” (Acts 1:8) That word witness is bandied around a lot. I have a mission, and that mission is to make God’s Word clear. In the attempts to try to motivate people with every kind of psychological device, God’s Word becomes caricatured. The Gospel says, “It behooved Christ to suffer.” (Luke 24:46) The word in the Greek is a force being unleashed that, once it is let go, will not stop flowing until it consummates its flow. Like a momentum unleashed, “It behooved Christ to suffer,” to die and to raise the third day.
     “Ye shall be witnesses.” The word witness in the Greek means Martyr. That is what a witness is, not some gimmick-laden, memorized formula program. The modern church world would have us all dashing out, “hanging scalps on our belts,” because we convinced someone to go through our various formulas. The witnesses that Jesus unleashed on the world were literally martyrs, and each gave his life, save one.
      Those early disciples, who wanted chief seats in the Kingdom and never understood what it was to follow Jesus, could hear Him say, “Except you take up a cross and follow Me, you can’t even be My disciple.” (Luke 14:27) They still didn’t understand it, and they ran and hid while He bore His cross. But they got the message finally. Bartholomew was flayed to death with a whip down in Armenia. Thomas was pierced with a Brahmin sword near Madras, India. Andrew was crucified on “Saint Andrew’s cross,” that X-shaped cross that bears his name. Peter was crucified upside down. All of them died a martyr’s death, save John; and he suffered horrible persecution. That is the price they paid.
      I have treated this subject of sacrifice with repetition today, because there is no other way that the Kingdom is going to be built. I looked to Jeroboam and Jesus because they characterize two ways in which you can motivate people. You can offer people what they want, appealing to their selfish instincts; you can offer to give them something here and now. Yet my Bible tells me that the heroes of faith, those of whom the world was not worthy, wandered in caves clothed with skins. Some of them were pulled asunder; some were separated from their families; many of whom died not having obtained the promise. Because, it says, God had us in mind to be included in that camp of the redeemed that had joined just a little with the sufferings of our Lord who gave so much. In the law of sacrifice, in identity with God’s program unto death, they valued God in His work that they might be raised over there to have stars in their crown.
      You can appeal to men, like Jeroboam, giving them something they want. Or, you can go Jesus’ route: you can give them a cross to stand up and be counted and to pay a price.
      I stood by a grave in Calcutta, and I remembered the sermons that I had preached on Jephthah. I stood for an hour in the hot sun and remembered a missionary who had sat in our home many years ago when I was a boy. He had come home from his many terms in India for a furlough before returning to his last assignment. He had a burden to build a church in the field he had labored in for so many years. He was not that kind of charismatic, dramatic, glamorous personality who could easily motivate people.
      He had spent a hard furlough crossing this nation trying to raise money to build a church in India. He sat in the office of his superior on the mission’s board, and said, “I would give anything if I could get that church built in India.” His superior told me about this years later and said, “I’m sure that he didn’t even know what he was saying.” He went on through the year taking up offerings and still had not received enough to build the church.
      Prior to returning to the field, he had his daughter fly in ahead, in order that she might arrive in time to start the school term. In monsoon rain, the big commercial jet landed in Calcutta airport and crashed. In the confusion of that night as the ambulances raced, another missionary, who had been sent to receive this girl, desperately went back and forth from hospital to airport, trying to find her. Eventually, out of a crushed section of the fuselage she was dragged out, dead.
      The hearts of people in this country broke open, and a memorial was established to the missionary’s daughter. The church was built as a memorial to her. Now you ask me, “Are you saying that God caused his daughter to die so the church would be built?” I am not saying anything like that. But I am saying it is no worse than God giving His Son.
      That is heart, soul and core of this gospel. God did not save the world with the simple moral homilies that Christ preached. We are bought with a price, and on an ugly hill called Calvary, He paid it all! God redeemed me by taking out of the bank of Heaven that which was closest to His heart and giving it for me. As I stood by this girl’s grave, I thought, God’s ways are not our ways. The girl is better off; she is in glory singing with the redeemed. There are thousands in India through the years who will rise up and will rejoice with her over there. But it took that focus on sacrifice and need to break forth the giving spirit. There is a law written in to God’s book. Today we are here, a sacrificing people willing to give until we hurt for no reason other than because we love God and we believe in the law of sacrifice.
      All of Jesus’ church could be put under one roof 1900 years ago. “They were all with one accord in one place.” (Acts 2:1) Jesus had said, “You will be witnesses unto me.” In Acts 1, above 500 of them saw Him ascend; 380 of them left; 120 were still there in sacrifice. But before the sun went down, 3,000 were born into the Kingdom on one day, and the Lord added to His church daily a band of human instruments that no one could have believed could affect the world the way they did. They changed the world: in unity, in sacrifice, in faith – touched and anointed by the Holy Spirit.
      Do you remember when the children of Israel crossed Jordan and went into the Promised Land? On the other side, they built a mound of 12 stones. (Joshua 4:1-9) Joshua told them that when their children in latter days would ask, they were to go to those 12 stones and tell the story of faith. The Promised Land was in front of them. After they won all the victories, they would be able to go back to that mound of stones and say, “God promised it here, and we believed Him, and we built the mound.” That is exactly what I want you to do.
      Re-printed with Pastor Melissa Scott’s permission




Prayer Requests for June, 2013
For Joe Bruno’s (Florence, Arizona) family: for his son to open his heart to God; and for his Mother who suffers from headaches and high blood pressure. She has had 2 minor strokes.
For William McAllister’s (Taylorville, Illinois) Father who is 90 years old. He has been sick recently.
For Michael Johnson (Lexington, OK) who needs treatment for heart problems.
For Willie Clark (Lubbock, TX) who has been receiving chemotherapy for 8 months. He just learned that the cancer has spread to his lungs.
For Frank Williams, Jr. (Death Row, Grady, Arkansas). After all the years and all the court rulings, the judge has ordered another new trial for Frank.
For Willie Scott (Grady, Arkansas). His custody level was lowered last month and now he asks everyone to pray that it will be lowered again soon.
For Tammy Daetwiler (Oklahoma) who is recovering from a stroke.
For Isaac Douglas (Danville, Illinois), who is seeking another sentence reduction. (He had his sentence reduced once last year.)
For Jamie Workman’s (Holdenville, Oklahoma) Mom who has Alzheimer’s disease.
For Robert Russell’s (Sumner, Illinois) Mom, Billie Rose, for health.
For Bob McDaniel (Rodney’s Dad). He is out of the infirmary and back on the yard.
For Michael Small’s (Illinois) step mother Suzanne. She is still being treated for vision problems.
For Joseph Runge’s Mother, Mavis (Illinois) who suffered a stroke last year. (She is regaining strength and feeling.)
For Dennis Martin (Lexington, Oklahoma) who is being treated for heart disease.
For Jimmy Huff (Colorado City, Texas), for health.
For Cody Campbell (Florence, Arizona), for health.
For Jacob Cota (Prescott, Arizona) who has back problems (Sciatica nerve).
For William Holland (Joliet, Illinois), for health.
For John Crutcher (in Oklahoma) who needs a liver transplant.
For Johnny Carruthers (Florence, Arizona) who has a few health issues.
For Anthony Grayson (Shawangunk, New York), that his health gets better, and that he finds legal assistance.
For Mike Long (Larned, Kansas), for health.
For Sister Ann & the Carmelite nuns in Little Rock.
For Freddie Lee Lott (Robinson, Illinois), to keep his healing and stay cancer free. (His lung cancer has been in remission since 1998.)
For Robert Heffernan (Grady, Arkansas), that DNA evidence will prove his innocence.
For Pastor Scott & her ministry in Los Angeles.
For all of us at Wingspread.





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