The Curious Incident of Eldad and Medad

However, two men whose names were Eldad and Medad, had remained in the camp. They were listed among the elders, but did not go out to the tent. Yet the Spirit also rested on them, and they prophesied in the camp. A young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp!” Numbers 11:24-27

Hands up anyone who has heard of Eldad and Medad. Mmm, I thought as much – even we Christians don’t know our Bibles very well. All right, to be fair, Eldad and Medad aren’t quite up there with David and Elijah, or Peter and Paul, in the galaxy of Bible characters. But even they have their story to tell.

We’d better start by getting familiar with that story – and really you need to read the whole of Numbers 11… 

The people of Israel have come out of slavery in Egypt. They are wandering in the desert, heading ultimately for the promised land, under the leadership of Moses. But there is trouble in the camp. The people are complaining about diet – they are missing all the nice things they used to eat in Egypt. Some even want to head straight back. Moses’ leadership is being questioned. He is having a tough time.

God tells him it is time to share his leadership responsibilities with others. He is to gather seventy of the leaders of the people, and he is given this promise: “…I will take of the spirit that is on you, and put the spirit on them. They will help you carry the burden of the people…” (verse 17).

Moses does as he is told. He gathers these men at the sacred Tent where he regularly goes to be with God. And while they are there something remarkable happens: “When the spirit rested on them, they prophesied…” (verse 25).

They prophesied. Let’s not worry too much exactly what this means; it was probably some kind of ecstatic utterance, akin to the speaking in tongues we read about in the New Testament. Whatever, it was obviously pretty dramatic. 

But now a little drama unfolds. It seems that two of the seventy men, Eldad and Medad, were missing from this gathering at the Tent. We aren’t told why – perhaps they weren’t well that day; perhaps they had somehow incurred a ritual impurity which barred them from going to the Tent. There is no suggestion that they are to blame. But anyway, they aren’t there. They miss out on this dramatic experience.

But wait a minute – no, they don’t miss out! It seems that they too are given this gift of prophesy, even though they are still in the camp with the ordinary people. A man comes running, like a school-child to the teacher: “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp!” And Joshua, Moses’ right-hand man, is distinctly unhappy: Moses,this really is most irregular – you should put a stop to it at once!

What does Moses do? Remarkably, he rejects Joshua’s advice. Indeed, he goes so far as to say that he would be a happy man if everyone had received this gift (does that remind you of anyone in the New Testament?).

So that is the curious incident of Eldad and Medad.The question that follows is obvious: is there anything we can learn from it? Let me suggest three things.

First, you can’t put God in a box. Yes, what happened that day with Eldad and Medad does seem a bit “irregular”. It happened in the “wrong” place and among the “wrong” people, and it didn’t happen under the official leadership. But so what? If God decided that Eldad and Medad should share in this experience after all, who is anyone to complain? God is Lord. He does what he pleases, and it is for us to bow to his will.

Things sometimes happen in church life which don’t seem quite right – they aren’t part of the norm, they don’t fit our tradition or our expectations. They make us feel uncomfortable. When this happens we should of course think them through prayerfully to establish whether or not they are genuine and authentically from God – there are plenty of false manifestations around, after all. “Test the spirits to see whether they are from God”, says John (1 John 4:1). But we shouldn’t respond with a knee-jerk reaction, like Joshua. Perhaps God is at work in a new way – and we wouldn’t like to get in the way of that, now, would we?

Second, we shouldn’t be too suspicious of fellow-Christians who do things differently from us. Christians all over the world worship, pray and serve in all manner of different ways. And of course we all like to think that our denomination or our movement or our church has got it right. Well, some practices are no doubt closer to the biblical pattern than others, but just because someone else has a different custom or practice doesn’t necessarily mean they are wrong. Is anything clearly anti-biblical? Is any fundamental principle being violated? If not, it is for us to accept that other person as a brother or sister Christian, differences notwithstanding. (The little episode of Jesus and the “strange exorcist” (Mark 9:38-41) gives us a good New Testament parallel to our Numbers passage.)

Third, there is no place for jealousy or insistence on status, especially among leaders. I think Joshua’s indignation, however mistaken, may have sprung from a good motive: he didn’t like to think that his master Moses’ authority might be undermined by what had happened in the camp. But Moses puts him right: Don’t worry on my account, Joshua! If God is at work, whether through me or not through me, that’s absolutely fine. Relax, and let God be God! 

All of us Christians can harbour a sense of wounded pride and get on our high horse when someone else seems to encroach on what we see as our particular territory – it might be teaching, or music, or pastoral care, or administration, or a thousand and one things. But rather than letting our noses be put out of joint, we should rejoice that that other person is using their God-given gift. A little humility is in order!

Lord God, help me not to tie you down by my own prejudices and expectations. May your Spirit work in me and in your church exactly as he pleases. Come again, oh Holy Spirit, this very day! Amen.

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When faith falters

John’s disciples told him about all these things. Calling two of them, he sent them to the Lord to ask, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” Luke 7:18

Have you ever been disappointed, perhaps even shocked, to see someone you thought of as a rock-solid Christian displaying doubt? It’s probably happened to most of us who have been Christians for any length of time. “I really can’t believe it!” we say. “He always seemed so strong, so convinced. He was the one who sorted out other people’s doubts! – I would never have dreamed his own faith could wobble like that.” 

Well, it happens, sadly. But perhaps it shouldn’t come as such a surprise to us. Here, after all, is John the Baptist, a powerful prophet of God, a man quarried out of the same sort of rock as Elijah in the Old Testament. This is the man who pointed his disciples to Jesus with the words, “Look! The lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.” Who said of Jesus “He must grow greater, I must grow less.” Who declared that he wasn’t worthy so much as to bend down and untie Jesus’ sandal straps. Yet, amazingly, he sends two of his own followers to Jesus with the question, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we look for someone else?” As if to say, “Jesus, did I get it wrong about you? Was I mistaken all along?” His conviction seems to have evaporated. 

You could talk for ages about why this happened. But it would all be speculation. Certainly, John was cooped up in some horrible prison, having fallen foul of Herod the Tetrarch, so it is understandable if he was pretty depressed. Even the strongest faith is subject to physical and/or emotional stress. Sometimes people who are experiencing what might be called spiritual depression are not so much in need of prayer as of a bit of a holiday, or possibly a visit to the doctor. 

The most likely reason for John’s faltering faith is, very simply, that Jesus wasn’t turning out to be the kind of Jesus he expected. Judging by his words in Luke 3 John was expecting something dramatic, indeed ferocious, from Jesus: “His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (3:17). He saw the Messiah as primarily bringing judgment to a sinful nation – and Jesus simply wasn’t doing that. Hence his puzzled question. 

Several things are worth noting. First, how did Jesus respond to John’s uncertainty? Well, the great thing is that he didn’t tell him off or scold him. Indeed, he answered him very gently and sympathetically: “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and good news is preached to the poor” (verse 22). As if to say, “John, aren’t these wonderful, beautiful, powerful, compassionate things exactly what you should expect from the Messiah? Don’t doubt me, my cousin! What I bring may not be what you expected – but isn’t it far better? The fires of judgment will come, don’t worry – but they are not for now.” 

 I wonder how many people become Christians under false pretences? They are persuaded to trust in Jesus on the basis of something he never claimed to be or to do. And so they suffer disillusionment when things don’t turn out as they had hoped. This is the essence of the false but popular “prosperity gospel” – Jesus will make you always happy, always successful, always rich, always healthy. We need a fully rounded image of Jesus – not a false Jesus with just a few characteristics blown up out of all proportion. 

Second, let’s not be too surprised when trusted Christian friends, even public figures, fail us. And let’s not be too judgmental. What they need from us is what John needed from Jesus – support, love and understanding, not condemnation. What Paul says about the Christian who lapses into out-and-out sin applies, surely, all the more in this sort of situation: “…you who are spiritual should restore him gently” (Galatians 6:1). 

And third, let’s not forget that if this kind of thing could happen to a mighty man like John the Baptist, it could also happen to you or me. Here is Paul again: “If you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!” (1 Corinthians 10:12). Yes, one day it could be you who is in need of comforting, reassuring words, and the support of understanding friends. 

Poor John! I feel deeply for him, don’t you, sitting there in that prison cell and questioning the very thing that had given his whole life meaning. How utterly desolate he must have felt. And I am so glad that Jesus responded to him in such a loving way. Aren’t you?  

Lord Jesus, please help me when my faith falters. And help me too to be a good friend to those struggling through the darkness of doubt. Amen.

The Bit-and-Bridle Christian

Do not be like the horse or the mule, which have no understanding, but must be controlled by bit and bridle… Psalm 32:9

I’ve never been a horse: so I can only imagine what it must be like the first time a human being decides to put a bit into your mouth. A nasty, hard, cold piece of metal, with straps attached to force you to move your head whichever way your rider chooses. Even if the bit is made as comfortable as possible – as I am sure it is in humane horsey circles – it can’t be a very pleasant piece of gear. 

A bit and bridle mean control: “You will do what I say, and not just what you want. You will go where I decide, and not just where you choose. You don’t have to think for yourself – that will be done for you. And if you try to rebel and disobey, well, sorry, but it will be very unpleasant for you. You’ll end up with a pretty sore mouth.”

It’s interesting that the Psalmist uses the bit and bridle as an illustration of how we shouldn’t relate to God. Certainly, we are called to respond to God’s leading with implicit obedience. But that obedience should be glad and willing, not something forced upon us. People who work with horses say that they develop deep relationships with their animals, real affection and respect, and I don’t doubt that that is true. But it doesn’t come close – no, not by a million miles – to the relationship between two people, two thinking beings who can relate to one another through speech, with smiles and frowns, jokes and debate, gestures and silences, discussion and laughter. 

People who don’t know the Old Testament often talk of the God depicted in its pages as hard, severe, judgmental, very different from the God of the New. This is a caricature. And this psalm is just one of dozens of Old Testament passages that make that clear: “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you and watch over you” (verse 8). No bit and bridle there! – it’s all care, concern, tenderness. In fact, it’s not far removed from the words of Jesus to his disciples in John 15:15: “I no longer call you servants, for a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I have learned from my Father I have made known to you”. 

I have called you friends. That pretty well sums it up. Christianity – and indeed, much of the religion of the Old Testament too – is all about relationships. How sad it is then, that we often have the talent for reducing it to the level of forced obedience, the bit and bridle option: “Oh well, God says this is what I must do, so I suppose I had better get on with it”. 

The question arises: Am I a “bit-and-bridle” Christian, aiming to please God through gritted teeth? Or am I a “glad obedience” Christian, intent on enjoying my relationship with God, and taking pleasure from doing his perfect will? – yes, even when it doesn’t really suit me. 

Jesus never used the bit and bridle image. But he did give us something a little similar: he spoke about the “yoke”, the wooden device that was used to control the ox (Matthew 11: 29-30). But the great thing about his yoke is that it is “easy” (the word can be translated “good” or “pleasant”). And what does it lead to? Ah, something bit and bridle can never give: “You will find rest for your souls”. 

 Is your soul at rest? It can be! 

Father, your ways are not always easy, and your demands can be hard. But teach me the joy of glad obedience, and so help me to know that rest and peace of soul of which Jesus speaks. Amen.