Mission Reports, Luncheon and Bible StudyFebruary 21, 2008
Missions Conference 2008
“…That all the ends of the earth may see the salvation of our God. (Isaiah 52:10)”
The Genesis of Missions
Judah, Tamar, Missions, and Jesus
God's Covenant Purpose
The Reverend Dr. Iain D. Campbell
Ligon Duncan. If you were here last night, you had opportunity to hear from Iain D. Campbell. And if you weren't, I’ll just tell you you’re in for a great treat. Iain is a pastor in Scotland (as you’ll detect by his accent), and we appreciate you taking time away from your family and look forward to hearing from you. And when you’re finished, if you’ll just dismiss us in prayer….
Dr. Campbell: Well, thank you very much for your introduction, and it's good to be with you again. Thank you for all that you have provided for me to make this a home from home, including the weather! [Laughter]
Now. I said last night that my talks were going to be based on the book of Genesis, and I'm going to turn this lunch time to Genesis 38. We don't have time to read the whole chapter, but you will recall that this is the chapter that tells us about Judah and Tamar. It's the story about Judah's family: how his sons did not fulfill their responsibility before God with his daughter-in-law, Tamar. And after the death of his own wife, Judah, we are told, went to Tamar and had an incestuous relationship with her — and thought that everything was hidden, until when he went back looking for her. And so we'll take up the story at verse 24 of Genesis 38. Let me just read the closing part of the chapter:
“About three months later Judah was told, ‘Tamar, your daughter-in-law, has been immoral. Moreover, she is pregnant by immorality.’ And Judah said, ‘Bring her out, and let her be burned.’ As she was being brought out, she sent word to her father-in-law, ‘By the man to whom these belong, I am pregnant.’ And she said, ‘Please identify whose these are, the signet and the cord and the staff.’ Then Judah identified them and said, ‘She is more righteous that I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah.’ And he did not know her again.
“When the time of her labor came, there were twins in her womb. And when she was in labor, one put out a hand, and the midwife took and tied a scarlet thread on his hand, saying, ‘This one came out first.’ But as he drew back his hand, behold, his brother came out. And she said, ‘What a breach you have made for yourself!’ Therefore his name was called Perez. Afterward his brother came out with the scarlet thread on his hand, and his name was called Zerah.”
Not that long ago, I was listening to a sermon by Professor Ted Bonnelly of Northern Ireland on this chapter, and he opened his sermon with words like this (I'm paraphrasing): ‘This,’ he said, is nobody's favorite Bible chapter.’ [Laughter] ‘And if you could take one Bible chapter with you to a desert island, this would not be it.’ To which I might add that if somebody had one chapter on which to preach at a lunch time Missions Conference, nobody in their right mind would preach on this chapter, either! [Laughter] But I'm strangely drawn to it.
At one level, of course, it's notoriously difficult both to read and to handle and to understand within the context of Genesis, interrupting, as it seems to do, the more magnificent story of Joseph. And we would not have missed anything, surely, had Moses taken us from the end of chapter 37 immediately to the beginning of chapter 39, and continued the story of Joseph. But in fact he doesn't. He inserts this chapter with all the sordid details of Judah's immorality with his daughter-in-law. And it's such a contrast! Joseph in Egypt preserves his morality and dignity and godliness, while his brother Judah, according to the portrait of this chapter, throws all caution to the wind and now has this relationship with Tamar. And yet, Tamar becomes the first woman named in the New Testament. In the genealogy of Jesus, as Matthew prepares us for the great record of the advent of Jesus Christ, Tamar is mentioned there. She heads the list of the few women who are mentioned in the genealogy, and we read about her there; and, therefore, there is some reason why chapter 38 is in Genesis.
And I want to try and probe that a little bit in the few moments that I have. [And I am remembering that this is a Missions Conference, and I'm not just indulging my interest in interpreting Genesis.] So I want to emphasize three things as I take an overview of this chapter.
I. God's covenant purpose.
I want to emphasize first of all what I'm going to call the singularity of God's covenant purpose…the singularity of God's covenant purpose.
Last night we were thinking about God's purpose of mission, intimated in the very opening words of Genesis, and the first recorded words of God: “Let there be light.” God has a purpose, and that purpose is of course what drives the whole Bible story. That purpose is set before us in the Old Testament and in the New, and Paul tells us in the letter to the Ephesians that the gospel is nothing other than the disclosure and the revelation of that purpose.
It was hidden until God revealed it. It was a mystery until God proclaimed it. And He proclaims His purpose to us, and in the gospel we discover things that otherwise we could never know — not least, the purpose of God. And it becomes the source of all our comfort. We love quoting, do we not, the great words of Romans 8:28: “All things work together for good to those who love God.” But that's not the end of the verse. The verse goes on to describe who these are. Do all things work together for our good because we love God? No, says Paul. But because we “are called according to His purpose.”
Just read Ephesians 1, as Paul is going to explain the gospel. Time and time again he focuses in on this one glorious fact of the purpose of this great God. And it is a singular purpose, and everything that happens in the Bible — all the stories of the Bible — hang on the line of that single purpose. And that purpose is intimated, as you know, successively, in various ways. It's intimated to Abraham: God says that in him all the nations of the world will be blessed, and he says as part of that, “Kings will come from you.”
Well, that's an interesting aspect of the purpose of God, and it's intimated to Abraham… kings will come from him. No, we haven't seen many kings coming from him yet. And yet, we are going to hear about the purpose of God because of the end of Genesis in chapter 49: the blessing upon Judah is that kings will come from him (or, as the verse puts it, “the scepter will not depart from Judah until Shiloh comes…until he comes to whom the scepter belongs.”) And so way back then amid the shadows of the Old Testament there is the anticipation of God's king coming from Judah. And so David comes and sits on the throne and wears the crown, and from him the great king is going to come.
And as God's purpose runs through the ages from eternity to eternity, what do we see at the close of Scripture as Revelation picks up on so many of these themes of Genesis? John sees heaven's throne — and not vacant, but occupied by the one dignitary who can legitimately wear the crown of David. “Behold,” says the book of Revelation, “I give you the Lion of the tribe of Judah.” And so the covenant purpose of God runs right through this chapter, and it runs right through the life of the very individual whose story is told us here in all its sordid detail in Genesis 38, because it's not that Judah's story is interrupting that of Joseph; it's actually the story of Joseph that's interrupting that of Judah. And the whole purpose of Joseph being where he is is to keep Judah alive, so that he will emerge as the one through whom God's covenant purpose will ultimately be realized.
And what I am saying today is the most glorious thing in the world: In Christ we are part of that same trajectory of covenant purpose that runs right through this chapter and that gives us Jesus. So I want to emphasize as we look at Genesis 38 the singularity of God's covenant purpose all through the ages, all through the generations, until at last from all the tribes and all the nations represented by all of the flags that are here and all that are not, God's elect will be gathered in to worship the Judaic king. It is evident, says the writer to the Hebrews as he discusses Mechizadek, it is evident that our Lord sprang from Judah. The singularity of God's covenant purpose. That's what's leading us all here today, interested in mission and in the growing reputation of Judah's greatest son.
II. The sinfulness of God's covenant people.
But then, I can't read this chapter without emphasizing, secondly, the sinfulness of God's covenant people….the sinfulness of God's covenant people. That's what's evident here in the contrast between Judah and Joseph.
There is Joseph, in chapter 39, and he's in Egypt. And Potiphar's wife presses herself to him, offers herself to him, and Joseph — gloriously, boldly, remarkably — simply flees the scene, because he does not want to sin against God.
And what a contrast between the brothers. Here is Judah, and he misuses his privileges and opportunities and he plunges headlong into immorality with his daughter-in-law, Tamar. In fact, George Lawson, a great commentator on the life of Joseph, takes this as an evidence of the truthfulness of the Bible. Why on earth would Moses record this, if it wasn't true? And it's all set before us, in all its truthfulness. “He relates,” says Lawson, “the most remarkable incidents in the lives of Jacob's sons, very little to the honor of the greater part of them.” This is not to the honor of Judah that this is recorded, but it is testimony to the truthfulness of Scripture and to the faithfulness of the God of Scriptures. Gerhardus Vos suggests that's one of the reasons so much of the revelation of this time is given through dreams. The fact that God speaks through dreams — that's the way He spoke to Pharoah, but that's also the way He reveals much of His purpose to Joseph himself and to Jacob. And He does it because, well, they’re just so sinful, these people! And it needs this special kind of revelation to compensate for the sinfulness of the covenant family.
And in all of this…in all of this, God is teaching His people the need for forgiveness. In fact, it's very interesting that the first prayer for forgiveness comes in chapter 50 of Genesis in verse 17: “Please forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father.” But here it is — “the transgressions of the servants of the God of your father,” and it's set before us here in Judah. And you know the story.
You know what he was like as a faithless son who deceived Jacob over Joseph, and is himself now going to be identified in a similar way as the one who made Tamar pregnant. You remember what he was like as a treacherous brother, prepared to sell Joseph into Egypt. And so Judah becomes the Old Testament Judas at that point. And in this chapter we realize that he's no better as a father, because he has raised these sons who are wicked in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord simply executes them.
And so here is this devastating testimony to the sinfulness of the covenant people. One commentator asks, “Can all the nations of the earth be blessed through individuals and a family who are constantly on the brink of self-destruction?” Is that possible? That's what God intimated. That was His purpose. But look at the family. Look at where His covenant line is running. Look at them! They’re on the brink of self-destruction.
And do you know? I think we can ask the same question so often of the church itself: Can the nations of the earth be blessed through churches that are often on the brink of self-destruction? Can nations be reached through the ministries of men who are often at the brink of self-destruction, and who cherish such sins in their heart so often? And who go with the world so often, and who fail to live up to the standards of God's word so often? And which one of us — which one of us here today can say that we have lived a defensible life? Even in the best moments of our Christian witness we have allowed sin to have a place, and we've cherished it. And we place ourselves so often on the brink of self-destruction. So yes, yes! Here is the one through whom the line of the covenant purpose is running, but look at him! This is an example to be avoided. This is not to the honor of Judah. He's the most important of the sons of Jacob.
I was reading recently the memoirs of Eddie Hobsbaum, one of the greatest historians of the twentieth century (a Jew by background, Marxist by conviction). But he reflects in his memoirs on his school days in Vienna and the subjects that he liked and didn't like in school. He said:
“I certainly didn't like religious instruction. We were repeatedly told and interrogated on the Bible stories in the Pentateuch. I recall the shock I caused when I answered yet another question on who was the most important of the sons of Jacob, unable to believe that they were going on once again about Joseph, and I said, ‘Judah.’ It was the wrong answer.”
It was actually the right answer, but not for the reasons Hobsbaum thought! It was the right answer. He is the most important of the sons of Jacob, but look at him. He “went down,” says the opening verse of the chapter. It's a physical description, but it speaks volumes about his spiritual descent, too. He went down. And how often do we have to hang our heads in shame because, having been called to intonate God's purpose, in order that God's purpose might be fulfilled through us, we go down, too.
III. The sovereignty of God's covenant grace.
Which brings me to my third point, which is simply the sovereignty of God's covenant grace. That's why the chapter is here, because God is going to show us that notwithstanding Judah's personal failings there is grace working here. It's working in Judah's own experience.
It's working, first of all, in the discovery of his sin that he tried to keep hidden, and thought was all out of the way and nobody would ever find it again–until Tamar became pregnant. And that was the point at which this sin was discovered, and Judah faces up to it and has to confess that Tamar was much more righteous than he was.
The discovery of the sin that led to the recovery of the sinner–what a different Judah we meet with after this. Take time to look at the characterization of Judah. Yes, before this he sold his brother; but after this, he actually stands surety for his brother, Benjamin. He's the pledge of Benjamin's safety. He becomes (in chapter 44) the advocate for Benjamin's life; chapter 46, he leads the brothers to Joseph, and through his leading of them, they are preserved in these days of famine. And God's grace is all over the place here — far greater than Judah's sin. Where sin abounded in the covenant family, grace did much more abound.
My friends, today that is the only hope for the mission of the church and the work of the gospel, that sinners can be reached through sinners, and hungry people can be told by hungry people where bread is to be found.
And the gospel, in all its magnificent riches, shows us that grace like water flows right down to the lowest point and is able to transform lives, to discover sins and recover sinners. And all over the world, through the fact that Judah's Son stands surety and advocate for us, men and women and boys and girls will ascribe praise to the King who came from Judah's line, simply because of the sovereignty of God's covenant grace.
May we rejoice in it anew, and in what that grace is doing (through us, yes — but in spite of us all the more) in reaching a lost world with the gospel. Amen.
O Lord our God, we give thanks today for the purposes of salvation that focus at last on the Lion of the tribe of Judah who will prevail, and who is exalted to the right hand of the majesty on high, King and Head of the church, and who commissions us to bring the gospel into all the world. And what poor sons of this great King we are; what poor ambassadors we are; unprofitable servants, we have only done our duty, and yet sin has mixed in with the best of it, and we fail more often than we succeed, and we go down more often than we conquer. And yet, we give thanks today for the glory of grace. We give thanks for what grace has done in our experience, and what grace can do through us as it flows to a needy world all around us through the proclamation of the gospel. We give thanks for all we have heard today, and for all that we are able to discover and learn in these days of conference about Your work in different parts of the world. May it all be to the praise of the glory of Your grace that sinners are saved and the kingdom of the Lord Jesus is being built up. Bless us now and watch over us throughout the remainder of this day. Be with us in our parting as in our meeting, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
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