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Consistent Faithfulness Is Not Impossible -- an illustration in Jeremiah 35

Sincerity alone won't save you, but it's still important.


Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Jeremiah 35:5-19

After giving the Jewish exiles hope for their future, Jeremiah turns his attention back to the sinful Jews still living in Jerusalem. This week, God offers the counter-example of the Rechabites, an obscure Jewish family who had faithfully obeyed their great-great-grandpa's rules for living. The Jewish sinners had no excuse for their lack of faithful obedience.

Jonadab son of Rechab will never fail to have a man to stand before me always. (35:19)

Getting Started: Things to Think About

You're Different, and I Respect That

I was at the middle school for a little while last week, and I saw a lot of slogans on the walls that encouraged things like showing respect. I'm a big fan of the concept of "respect", so I couldn't pass up this topic. What is respect? Here are the two online dictionary definitions:

  1. a feeling of deep admiration for someone or something elicited by their abilities, qualities, or achievements

  2. due regard for the feelings, wishes, rights, or traditions of others

Who are the people you tend to respect?


I think most of us immediately think of strong Christians and/or effective Christian leaders (which is good!), but I don't want us to limit this discussion to those. If you have to, nudge the discussion in that direction: who are people you don't necessarily agree with but still respect?


Now we've got a discussion! What is it in particular about those people that warrants your respect?


For me, this is simple: I respect sincerity, consistency, and kindness. I may utterly disagree with someone's perspective, but I can respect someone who lives by those principles.


And that leads directly into the biblical tie-in. The Bible doesn't give me the option of just showing respect to people who fit a certain profile! The Bible says two things about respect as it applies to us and our behavior:

  • Showing respect to others bolsters our Christian witness: "be ready at any time to give a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you. Yet do this with gentleness and respect [or reverence]" 1 Pet 3:15-16

  • Living worthy of respect bolsters our Christian witness: "seek to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you, so that you may behave properly [respectably] in the presence of outsiders and not be dependent on anyone" 1 Thess 4:11-12

Why? Because God is no "respecter of persons". He treats all people according to one criterion: whether or not they trusted in Jesus Christ for salvation. Thus, we should show equal respect to all people in order to put forward the best gospel witness we can.


You retort, "But wait? What if that person has some completely wrong religious beliefs?" Well, what matters is that they hear the truth of the gospel. And they're probably not going to listen to someone who treats them disrespectfully!


Anyway, here's the point: in this week's passage, we read about a group of people God wants us to respect because of their sincerity and consistency. They might not be the kind of people you would choose to hang out with on a Friday night. And that's precisely the kind of thinking God wants us to overcome.


A Long Obedience

I love watching a well-trained animal. They're amazing, and they're so happy being amazing!

Agility competitions, those crazy frisbee contests, long jumping, you name it. Watch last year's Westminster Championship and tell me that those dogs aren't so extremely happy.

I watch that and can't help but think "those dogs are better at being obedient than I am!" Do you have any stories of a dog's obedience that sticks out to you? I could gush and gush about amazing stories I've heard about service animals who quite literally saved lives because of their incredible capacity for obedience.


What I'd like to use this topic for is to find out if we're better at obedience than we give ourselves credit for. Here's a silly exercise -- you may have to tweak it to make it work or your group. Do something like give everyone in your group a piece of wrapped candy, but tell everyone that they can't eat it. Twist: secretly give half of your group a reason (probably something like "you can eat it after lunch"). (Btw: make sure you would not be tempting anyone in your group to cheat on a diet!)


When you get to the end of your Bible lesson, you can take stock of how everyone has done with this.


If that's too goofy for you, just toss out a question like this: "what are the kinds of rules you are particularly good at obeying; what about not?" Maybe ask about rules their parents set out that they were very faithful to obey.


Here's where I bring it all together: I think Christians have a negative opinion of our capacity for obedience because we are very aware of all the ways we are not obedient to God's Word in our lives. In other words, the Spirit makes us mindful of our sin. (That's His job, btw!) Well, perhaps we should take a moment to celebrate the victories we do have in our Christian life.


Eugene Petersen coined an excellent phrase to describe discipleship: a long obedience in the same direction. It's not quick, it's not clean, and it's not easy. And there's no Westminster agility championship for Christian obedience. So, talk about your personal growth in obedience. What are those ways your Christian obedience is better than it was a year ago? (Btw, if you don't like the phrase "Christian obedience", just remember what we studied that Jesus told us in John 14: "If anyone loves me, he will obey my word" John 14:23.)


We're going to read about a group of Jews whose obedience to family rules impressed even God (so to speak). And God lifts them up as models for the rest of us. God wants us to be obedient to the rules He has given us.

 

Where We Are in Jeremiah

We are skipping some amazing verses. (We do only have three months in the book.) We've been in a section of Jeremiah that focused on encouraging words to the Jews in exile in Babylon. In these chapters, the emphasis shifts to the people still living in Jerusalem, but God's words are about the future of the Jewish people.


Chapter 32 is an amazing object lesson (at Jeremiah's expense):

  • The background is that God will let the Babylonians raze Jerusalem to the ground because of His people's incessant sin.

  • But to illustrate the hope He wants His people to have, He has Jeremiah buy a field and seal the deed away in a safe place. One day, the people will again own and work the land of Judea.


Chapter 33 is a darker but no less amazing object lesson:

  • Jeremiah has been thrown in a makeshift prison by the king while the Babylonians are besieging Jerusalem. The army has torn down houses to use the wood to build counter siege weapons.

  • God says that where the houses used to be filled with families, their empty foundations will be filled with corpses of soldiers.

  • But one day the city will be filled with life again. (This also has a "righteous branch of David" reference.)


Chapter 34 covers two illustrations of very tough love:

  • King Zedekiah is told that he will be captured but not killed, that he will die of natural causes in Babylon. This was to be an illustration to the people of God's sovereignty over Nebuchadnezzar.

  • God accuses the people of failing to obey the "sabbath year" by releasing their slaves. (This is a tough one.) Because they have failed to give people freedom, God will "free" them from their right to live.


There are two very important truths being established:

  • The people have proven that they are incapable of obeying God's laws. But God will "fix" that: 31:40 “I will make a permanent covenant with them: I will never turn away from doing good to them, and I will put fear of me in their hearts so they will never again turn away from me."

  • The same God who has brought judgment on sin will also bring hope and a future: 31:42 “For this is what the Lord says: Just as I have brought all this terrible disaster on these people, so am I about to bring on them all the good I am promising them."


Here's some great lines in a way only God can communicate:

  • 31:37 “This is what the Lord says: Only if the heavens above can be measured and the foundations of the earth below explored, will I reject all of Israel’s descendants because of all they have done."

  • 33:20 “This is what the Lord says: If you can break my covenant with the day and my covenant with the night so that day and night cease to come at their regular time, 21 then also my covenant with my servant David may be broken."


So there you go! This week's story about the Rechabites jumps back to an earlier time. My guess is that the editor is using this to demonstrate to the readers that God's promise of a new heart able to obey is not based on folly and ridiculousness. Here's is a group of people who have consistently obeyed the rules their fathers have passed down to them. In other words, disobedience is a choice. The people have no one to blame but themselves.

 

Part 1: Faithfulness Noticed (Jeremiah 35:5-11)

35 This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord in the days of Jehoiakim son of Josiah, king of Judah: 2 “Go to the house of the Rechabites, speak to them, and bring them to one of the chambers of the temple of the Lord to offer them a drink of wine.”
3 So I took Jaazaniah son of Jeremiah, son of Habazziniah, and his brothers and all his sons—the entire house of the Rechabites— 4 and I brought them into the temple of the Lord to a chamber occupied by the sons of Hanan son of Igdaliah, a man of God, who had a chamber near the officials’ chamber, which was above the chamber of Maaseiah son of Shallum the doorkeeper. 5 I set jars filled with wine and some cups before the sons of the house of the Rechabites and said to them, “Drink wine!”
6 But they replied, “We do not drink wine, for Jonadab, son of our ancestor Rechab, commanded, ‘You and your descendants must never drink wine. 7 You must not build a house or sow seed or plant a vineyard. Those things are not for you. Rather, you must live in tents your whole life, so you may live a long time on the soil where you stay as a resident alien.’ 8 We have obeyed Jonadab, son of our ancestor Rechab, in all he commanded us. So we haven’t drunk wine our whole life—we, our wives, our sons, and our daughters. 9 We also have not built houses to live in and do not have vineyard, field, or seed. 10 But we have lived in tents and have obeyed and done everything our ancestor Jonadab commanded us. 11 However, when King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon marched into the land, we said, ‘Come, let’s go into Jerusalem to get away from the Chaldean and Aramean armies.’ So we have been living in Jerusalem.”

I'm starting at the beginning of the chapter because it explains the setting. My guess is that Lifeway skipped over those verses to stay away from the bizarre names. But I'm sure someone in your group is going to read them, so here we go:

  • Jehoiakim. This is the name everybody needs to notice. He became king when Josiah died, and he was a bad king. We're going to talk a lot more about him next week, so for right now just now that one of his terrible decisions was to withhold tribute from Nebuchadnezzar, causing Babylon to send armies into Judea. This is almost certainly what drove the Rechabites to take refuge in Jerusalem.

  • Jaazaniah son of Jeremiah. The name means "Yahweh hears", and it was a common name (variant: Jezaniah). The other people in the Bible who have this name (including in 40:8) are different people; that can be confusing.

  • Son of Habazziniah. This is the only place this name appears in the Bible.

  • Rechabites. We learn the story of Jonadab (Jehonadab) son of Rechab in 2 Kings 10:15-17. All we know about him from the Bible is that he supported Jehu's crusade against the wicked king Ahab. That happened in ~840 BC; this week's passage happened in ~603 BC. That's almost 250 years! There is extrabiblical evidence that his family were metalworkers. To protect their culture and their trade, Jonadab commanded them to be alcohol-free nomads. Two proposals about the alcohol-free: (1) liking a certain alcohol might tempt someone to settle down and farm it; (2) people who drank could be careless with their trade secrets. I lean toward proposal (2).

  • Sons of Hanan son of Igdaliah. We don't know anything about this group. After the return from exile, several leaders in Jerusalem went by this name. "Man of God" has a positive connotation, but we just don't know if these were "good guys".

  • Maaseiah son of Shallum. This is another common name; it means "work of Yahweh". Someone with this name in Jeremiah was the father of a false prophet (29:21) and the father of a corrupt priest (21:1). If they are the same person, then God is using the Rechabites as an accusation against a wicked Jew. I lean toward that -- if the Rechabites were with the "good guys", they were close to the "bad guys".

Here's the bare-bones summary:

  • When Babylon's armies first started raiding in Judea, a group of nomads took refuge in Judea. They were a strict family who obeyed a vow not to drink alcohol. God was going to use their faithful obedience as an object lesson against the relentless disobedience of the other Jews.


Let's start with the elephant in the room that I hope you noticed. The New Testament is very clear that we are not to tempt anyone else to sin. Paul calls it a "stumbling block". In Romans 14, he talks about the example of "meat sacrificed to idols". When we studied that, I hinted at the modern example of "social drinking". You might have no problem with drinking a beer at a party. But the new Christian who sees you at the party and just escaped an addiction to alcohol might be tempted to relapse because of you. So, don't do anything that would tempt someone to sin.


So, huh?! This seems like a pretty clear temptation (command!) to sin!


Let me just say this. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 10:

13 No temptation has come upon you except what is common to humanity. But God is faithful; he will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to bear it.

And God knew that this family was not about to give into a temptation to drink wine. In fact, they weren't tempted at all.


But hear me: God can do something like this because He knows the heart. We do not. In other words, God can set this situation before the Rechabites. We had better never decide to put on this kind of object lesson.


But that leads us to a discussion: what kind of temptations (like this one) have you faced in your life? How did you handle it? How did it go?


Aside: About Alcohol

Let me as direct about this as possible: the alcohol is not the point. The obedience to a command is the point. In other words, please do not use this passage to promote tee-totaling. The Bible clearly teaches moderation in all things, and in my opinion the passage I mentioned above in Romans 14 is a strong argument that we should not drink alcohol (because we might tempt someone else to do the same, and perhaps they can't control themselves as well as you can). But Jeremiah 35 is not such a passage. The Rechabites did this as a command from their forefather Jonadab. We are not told why he gave that command. (I gave you my suspicion above.)


It's about the obedience, not the alcohol. Save your lesson about drinking alcohol for another day.

 

Part 2: Unfaithfulness Noticed (Jeremiah 35:12-17)

12 Then the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah: 13 “This is what the Lord of Armies, the God of Israel, says: Go, say to the men of Judah and the residents of Jerusalem, ‘Will you not accept discipline by listening to my words?—this is the Lord’s declaration. 14 The words of Jonadab, son of Rechab, have been carried out. He commanded his descendants not to drink wine, and they have not drunk to this day because they have obeyed their ancestor’s command. But I have spoken to you time and time again, and you have not obeyed me! 15 Time and time again I have sent you all my servants the prophets, proclaiming, “Turn, each one from his evil way, and correct your actions. Stop following other gods to serve them. Live in the land that I gave you and your ancestors.” But you did not pay attention or obey me. 16 Yes, the sons of Jonadab son of Rechab carried out their ancestor’s command he gave them, but these people have not obeyed me. 17 Therefore, this is what the Lord, the God of Armies, the God of Israel, says: I will certainly bring on Judah and on all the residents of Jerusalem all the disaster I have pronounced against them because I have spoken to them, but they have not obeyed, and I have called to them, but they did not answer.’”

And these verses make that clear.


"This family has faithfully obeyed a command given by their great grandpa, and you louts can't obey commands given by God Almighty?!" "Yahweh of armies, the God of Israel" is the same title we read last week which tells us that God is God of all.


God uses the phrase "time and time again" a bunch in Jeremiah (7:13, 11:7, 25:3, 26:5, 29:19, etc.), though the Hebrew is more woodenly translated "early and often" (or something like that; it's an obscure construction). You could also use "over and over". The point is that Jonadab gave his command to his descendants once, and then he died. God has been continuously telling His people to obey these things.


And the kicker is that God has been telling His people "why", as well. The Rechabites don't really know "why"; they have just faithfully obeyed. This is why I suggested the "twist" above of giving half of your group a reason/explanation of the command and half not. Isn't it harder to obey a command you aren't told why? That's yet another strike against the Jews.


I feel like every lesson we've had in the prophets has been about the Jews' disobedience. Which it pretty much has. That's why God sent the prophets! To confront the people with their sin (/disobedience) and call them to repent! (I would have long since run out of different ways to say the same thing, but God never runs out of clever and powerful words.)


Here's how I might structure the discussion for this section:

  • What are the commands God highlights that He gave His people?

  • How do they compare with the commands Jonadab gave his descendants? (As in, which is harder, and why?)

  • What does this say about the Jews?

  • Today: what are the commands Jesus highlights for us? How do they compare with the commands in this week's passage? (As in, harder? easier? Which set of rules would you prefer to live under?)

 

Part 3: Faithfulness Commended (Jeremiah 35:18-19)

18 But to the house of the Rechabites Jeremiah said, “This is what the Lord of Armies, the God of Israel, says: ‘Because you have obeyed the command of your ancestor Jonadab and have kept all his commands and have done everything he commanded you, 19 this is what the Lord of Armies, the God of Israel, says: Jonadab son of Rechab will never fail to have a man to stand before me always.’”

This is a great "well done, My good and faithful servant" acclamation, but we have to make sure we understand this properly.


Remember above how I said that I respected sincerity and consistency? Well, that's what God is celebrating in the Rechabites.


But tell me if you've heard this before: "As long as you're sincere, God doesn't care what you believe or how you behave." I have. Isn't that what God is saying above about the Rechabites?


NO!


We have to remember the context: the Rechabites are a family of Jews. And they're clearly a strict family of Jews. If they're right with God, it's not because they obeyed Jonadab, it's because they have also obeyed God. I assume that they're part of the remnant God has talked about.


Unfortunately, we only have Jewish oral traditions to test this by. There's a tradition that says that the Rechabites were given the privilege of bringing wood to the altar in Nehemiah's rebuilt temple. If that's true, it would support the idea that the Rechabites were also faithful Jews who were considered worthy of such a sacred function.


We do have a New Testament equivalent of this amazing endorsement in Matthew 25:

19 “After a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them. 20 The man who had received five talents approached, presented five more talents, and said, ‘Master, you gave me five talents. See, I’ve earned five more talents.’
21 “His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You were faithful over a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Share your master’s joy.’

And the follow-up parable:

34 Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.
35 “‘For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger and you took me in; 36 I was naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you took care of me; I was in prison and you visited me.’

I touched on this chapter in our study of the Olivet Discourse. There, I emphasized Jesus' teachings about time. If He comes back early, or if He comes back late, we are to be ready. Here, I want to focus on his teachings about obedience. What behavior elicits the Master's approval in Matthew 25?


How does that behavior compare with what we read in this week's passage? (And to really make this interesting: how does it compare with how you answered a very similar question in the previous section?)


Do you want to hear those words from God when you stand before Him in judgment? Based on what God commends about the Rechabites in this week's passage, what do you need to "do better" in your life to hear them? And then more generally, what do you need to work on in your "long obedience" of Christian discipleship?


God bless you!

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