Key verse: Ruth 1:1
Big idea: The lovingkindness of God continues even during judgment.
By the time we finished our series in Judges, I was ready to be finished. It is such a dark and depressing period of the Bible that a serious study leaves your heart longing for a better day. That better day comes swiftly in two forms: one will be the rise of the judge Samuel, who will set apart both Saul and David as king. The other is the book of Ruth, set during the book of Judges, showing a bright patch in an otherwise bleak portrait of the life of God's people. We will touch on both this week, and they are like a breath of fresh air after a long time in darkness. The theme of Ruth is best summarized in a little Hebrew word: hesed. It refers to the faithfulness of God to His covenant promises, and is often translated as "lovingkindness." God is faithful even when people are faithless, and we see His hand here, during the period of the judges.
The story is kicked off when Naomi, her husband, and her sons must leave Bethlehem because of a famine. We should not see this as some random chance: God had warned Israel that when they were unfaithful they would experience famine and drought (Leviticus 26:19-20). God would not leave them to be complacent in their sin but would judge them to shake them from their slumber. Naomi and her family went to the country of Moab, where both of her sons married Moabitess women. Her husband and her sons died until she was like a female Job, bereft of all the blessings she had enjoyed. She determined to return to Bethlehem and said goodbye to her daughters-in-law.
One of them kissed her, and said goodbye reluctantly. The other one "clave unto her." Especially in light of the wickedness in the book of Judges, this Moabite woman was a better picture of the faithfulness of God than the Israelites who learned about Him from childhood. Others might kiss and make a show, but He clung to His people, whatever it took. Even when He was judging them with famine, it was to bring them home. In fact, it was only through the famine and the death of these three men that God brought Ruth into Bethlehem, and through her both King David and King Jesus into the world.
Discussion idea: How did God use His judgment of Israel to bless Israel in the story of Ruth? Has God ever done anything like that in your life?
Prayer focus: Faithful God, teach me to be faithful like You. Teach me to cling to Your people and to Your promises, as a model of integrity and hope.
Key Verse: Acts 15:19
Big Idea: The churches of Jesus may not add cultural barriers to the gospel.
What does a Christian dress like? How is her hair cut? What kind of music does he listen to? The Old Testament law included these kinds of regulations, from the kind of food that the people ate to the kind of clothes they wore. Their unique behavior showed that they were unique people. We should not be surprised that some people want to impose similar standards on Christians. But should they? If so, what are they?
The New Testament is absolutely radical about these points. Christians are not marked out by any of these things, but by love (John 13:35). Many of the first century Jewish Christians could not wrap their minds around this, so the leaders of the early churches gathered in Jerusalem for an associational meeting. Surely a Gentile convert must at least be circumcised? They needed to become Jewish to become Christians. But the firm decision was no: cultural barriers should not be added to the gospel.
Today, circumcision is unlikely to be the barrier that we add. Maybe we look at other churches and say they must be unfaithful because they use old music or new music. Because they have a coffee bar or do not. The preacher wears a tie or jeans. But none of these are God's markers, and what we are really saying is that people must become like us culturally before they can join our family spiritually. We want to tame the radical gospel and make it into a plan that turns people into respectable citizens of our neighborhood, rather than citizens of Heaven. But it won't work. The restraint on our behavior is love, and a desire to keep our neighbor from stumbling (Acts 15:21). The only change necessary to come to Christ is one of the heart. Christ's message is offensive enough without us adding barriers: you and I are such wicked sinners, that the only way to defeat the sin in our lives was for the Son of God to come and overcome it as priest and sacrifice. If someone will be offended, let it be by that, not our opinions.
Discussion Idea: Why do we like to label people by external things? How does God see people?
Prayer Focus: Pray for a heart that loves people as God does, and a desire to reach the lost.