The Condition of the Church
The first several chapters of 1 Samuel provide a relevant picture of the Western church in the year 2016. These Scriptures also reveal an important pattern of how God brings positive change amongst His people in any era.
After years of rejecting the right path, compromised leaders become hardened to the voice of God. Often times, God will send a prophet to them to make clear the will of God in a forthright manner. In the case of Eli, it was too late.
Eli was a priest and the twelfth of thirteen judges who led Israel from 1182 B.C. to 1142 B.C. (40 years) during the latter part of the historic period of the judges that ran from 1572 B.C. to 1103 B.C.
When Eli was very old a “man of God” came to him and prophesied:
“Thus says the Lord, ‘Did I indeed reveal myself to the house of your father when they were in Egypt subject to the house of Pharaoh? Did I choose him out of all the tribes of Israel to be my priest, to go up to my altar, to burn incense, to wear an ephod before me? I gave to the house of your father all my offerings by fire from the people of Israel. Why then do you scorn my sacrifices and my offerings that I commanded for my dwelling, and honor your sons above me by fattening yourselves on the choicest parts of every offering of my people Israel?’ ” (1 Samuel 2:27b - 29)
Then, after notifying Eli of God’s coming judgment on his family, he declared:
“And I will raise up for myself a faithful priest, who shall do according to what is in my heart and in my mind. And I will build him a sure house, and he shall go in and out before my anointed forever. And everyone who is left in your house shall come to implore him for a piece of silver or a load of bread and shall say, ‘Please put me in one of the priests’ places, that I may eat a morsel of bread.’” (2:35 - 36)
Eli’s indictment was that he despised God’s sacrifices and offerings and honored his sons above Him.
Eli’s wicked sons, Hophni and Phineas, used the priestly service of the tabernacle for their own personal gain and lust. They were “worthless men” who “did not know the Lord” (2:12b). I am sure they were experts in all the religious jargon of the day though. Compiling all that the Bible says about them, we see that they possessed the following characteristics:
- “treated the offering of the LORD with contempt” (2:17b)
- had contempt for God’s law (2:13–15)
- aggressively covetous (2:15–16)
- laid heavy burdens on believers (2:15–17)
- adulterous (2:22)
Eli’s sin was that he did not remove his sons from the priesthood, thus condoning their wickedness—most notably the corruption of sacrifices and offerings to God. The Bible reveals him giving them a talking to when he was “very old” (2:23–25), but this seems rather half-hearted, given that this had apparently been going on for years. Furthermore, the prophetic word from the man of God made known that he had honored his sons above God “by fattening yourselves on the choicest parts of every offering” made by the people of Israel. Eli was a “heavy” man who had no problem looking the other way when it came to his sons so he could fatten himself on the spoils. Because of this, poverty would be a specific judgment on his house, as Hannah also prophesied, “Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry have ceased to hunger” (2:5).
The atmosphere today of the “visible” Western church resembles that of Israel during the judgeship of Eli in some ways. Most notably, it treats the offering of the Lord with contempt. What is the offering of the Lord for the church? It is simply Jesus Christ. He was (and is) the lamb of God that these same Hebrew sacrifices, corrupted by Eli’s house, pointed to. Jesus Christ is not the head of this visible church. No, not even close. Its leaders love the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God. They modify God’s laws for their own seeming advantage, which is often borne from a covetous intent. Their church (it is not the Lord’s) is a “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” Laodicean church. Nothing else needs to be said. Anyone who deals in reality can plainly see it reflected in the characteristics of Hophni and Phineas. There is a deceitful tendency to paint it with a brighter color. This brand of paint does not come from the Lord.
What is the result of this? The revelation of “the word of Lord” to God’s people shrivels up. The Holy Spirit slipped in the following note, which revealed the impact of this by the time Eli had grown old:
And the word of the Lord was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision. (3:1b)
Some churches today are receiving revelations from lords, but few from the Lord. Very few believers hear God’s voice.
A Leadership Revolution
The beautiful thing about these first few chapters of Samuel is that God allows us to see the dramatic leadership change that He had coming. Rest assured, He has the same type of change in the real Western church.
Let us bring this into focus with the following Scriptures:
Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord in the presence of Eli. And the word of the Lord was rare in those days.
At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his own place. The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the LORD, where the ark of God was.
Then the LORD called Samuel, and he said, “Here I am!” and ran to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down.
And the LORD called again, “Samuel!” and Samuel arose and went to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” Now Samuel did not yet know the LORD, and the word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him. (3:2–7)
We are not told how old Samuel was here as a “boy”. The Jewish historian Josephus said he was 12.
In contrast to Moses, whose “eye was undimmed, and his vigor unabated,” Eli’s “eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see.” Moses remained close to God until his death, whereas Eli was spiritually blind in his later years. It may not have been a coincidence that the Holy Spirit injects the fact that the “lamp of God had not yet gone out” when describing this scene. We could have just been told it was early in the morning (the priests were to tend the lamp from evening to morning; Exodus 27:20–21). Either way, God was also getting ready to blow out Eli’s lamp.
Eli’s sons are missing from this scene. They were probably happy to delegate this duty to the kid, since there was nothing in it for them. There was no one to manipulate in the tabernacle at 4 am to satisfy their flesh. I can imagine them delegating all sorts of “unimportant” work to the kid … laughing as he “ran” to do it. None of it would be missed by the justice of God.
The leaders that God is raising up today are getting their hands dirty in all sorts of places. They are overcoming challenges unseen by many, which God always uses to develop their character. Many have spent time “running” around the man made programs of the church, while the leaders conduct marketing initiatives, manipulate Scripture to tax the congregation, and cheat on their wives.
All God needs is a man who loves Him above his self. Like a Master craftsman, God hammers his lampstand out of gold. The “hammering” process represents the faith-testing, trials of life and gold is symbolic for the nature of God. God constantly refines him and molds him after the likeness of Christ. He lights the oil flowing through him. The fire of His anointing shines forth in His brightness.
Despite the fact that Samuel was always at the church building (he slept there) and served there, he “did not yet know the LORD.” This does not mean that he was not “saved”. Quite the contrary, the boy believed in the Lord. The fact that he “ran” to Eli in the wee hours of the morning, reveals that he was a hard worker who took his responsibilities seriously. His diligence demonstrated his faith. He simply did not yet know the person of the Lord, nor had he been filled with the Holy Spirit.
How does one come to know the person of the Lord? The same way one gets to know anyone. By spending time with the person and having meaningful dialogue. If I went to live and work at a king’s castle, but never met him at all, I would not know him. This does not mean I would not believe in him and what his kingdom represented. If though, while I was there, I read all the king’s writings, I would have a good impression of what he was like. What I read could possibly inspire me to give my life in service to him, moving me beyond just working at the castle to feel good or earn a living. In this case, I would desire to meet him. If I actually got to spend time alone in his presence, heard the tone of his voice, and had direct conversation with him (e.g., about what concerned him most and what he thought about me), then I would forever know him.
When the Holy Spirit presses upon me and says something specific to my circumstance of life. I am forever changed. One of the great travesties of religion is that it creates a false atmosphere. Many Christians, myself included, were brought up in a religious environment where they were subconsciously taught to believe that God does not really communicate with His people. A great many are led to believe that His written word is all we have to go on.
I will never forget the first time the Lord spoke to me or, at least, the first time He spoke to me when I recognized it at the time. It opened my eyes, because I had been subconsciously led to think that this was not even an option. It was January 2002 and I was 25. I was up late one night, alone in my apartment in Delaware. I was looking at job openings on the internet and trying to figure out what I really wanted to do for a career. It was especially important at the time, because I was to be married about five months later. Deep inside, I really wanted to be an investment advisor, but I was intimidated by what all that entailed. Uncertain and afraid, I started crying. Then, like a bolt of lightning, I heard, “Joshua 8:1”. I scrambled for my Bible, turned to that verse, and read:
And the LORD said to Joshua [my name], “Do not fear and do not be dismayed. …”
God totally rocked my world that night and I have never been the same. Now, if you happen to have a Biblical name, like me, don’t expect God to take an actual historical verse and transfer it to a message pertaining to your life. God simply met me where I was at and He did it in a unique way. He revealed His powerful love for me. The amazing thing is, fourteen years later, I am an investment advisor with my own business called True Vine Investments.
I love how the Lord talked to Samuel that first time. There was no introduction, no formalities. He called him to be a prophet and He launched him right into it. I suspect that young Samuel was forever changed after his early morning encounter. Not only did He speak to him, but He began gracing him with the gift of prophecy (the word of the Lord). Often times, the first time God speaks to us, He just doesn’t say, “Hello!”, He engages us in our calling. There are many Biblical examples of this.
There is something of an intensity with the Lord’s approach that captures the heart of the recipient. The Lord is exclusively focused on His purposes (in Christ). We are captivated by what the Lord reveals. He is a consuming fire that draws us in to abandoning our own ways.
This was an important day for Israel. With prophetic thunder, God made it clear that the old regime was finished. God knew Samuel would obey His voice and He was readying him to lead the new regime. We read:
And Samuel grew, and the LORD was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba knew that Samuel was established as a prophet of the LORD. And the LORD appeared again at Shiloh, for the LORD revealed himself to Samuel at Shiloh by the word of the LORD. (3:19–21)
God had Samuel positioned just right. Instead of being off in the hill country of Ephraim with his family, he was serving at the heart of Israel’s religious capital, where the faithful would go every year to sacrifice and worship. Thus, all Israel, from the northernmost point of Dan, to the southernmost point of Beersheba, knew who he was. Once he started prophesying successfully, the nation recognized that God had made him a prophet.
There are a couple of additional key points to note here that are also applicable to our current situation. That is to say, they are relevant for the next generation of church leaders that God is now raising up. To be clear, this next generation is as different as Samuel was from Eli.
First, Samuel grew up in the midst of the religious mess of his day, but he was not conformed to it. Because of his allegiance to the heart of God, he was able to blaze a new trail. He was not just coming out of the “broken” system of man, but doing so in strength. The faithful remnant recognized that God was behind him.
God is preparing a new generation of leaders today. Many also grew up inside the religious mess of the last few decades. They have, and are, coming out of it through obedience to the voice of God. God is positioning and empowering them to usher in His new regime, because He knows they will do things His way.
Second, Samuel was chosen by God and not man. He came from outside the old regime. They were fine with having him as a servant boy, but there was no further record of relations after the word of the Lord came forth from him. Under the old regime, the word of the Lord was rare. They were accustomed to being able to do what they wanted and controlling the show to make it seem like God was behind it. When the word of the Lord showed up through Samuel, they quickly became uncomfortable. The only thing they could do was ignore it and keep on pretending. However, to the faithful remnant, the transition to a new regime, became increasingly clear.
The most important thing I have to say to the next generation of leaders that God is preparing is:
Do not expect to be recognized by the old regime. Just keep moving forward on the path that God gives to you and leave them behind. In time, the empowerment of the Holy Spirit will make it abundantly clear that God has established a new regime.
In part two, we will dig into this deeper as the account of Samuel’s life progresses.