Not if but where

“Then Jonathan said, ‘Very well, let us cross over to these men, and we will show ourselves to them. If they say thus to us, ‘”Wait until we come to you,'” then we will stand still in our place and not go up to them. But if they say thus, ‘”Come up to us'” then we will go up. For the Lord has delivered them into our hand, and this will be a sign to us’ ” (1 Samuel 14:8-10 NKJV).

The battle between Jonathan (assisted by his armor bearer) and the Philistine garrison as recorded in 1 Samuel 14 is one of the great “victory to the underdog” stories of history. Better armed and much greater in numbers, the Philistine army dominated Israel. But King Saul’s son took on a detachment of the enemy aided only by his apprentice and won definitively, inspiring his fellow Israelite soldiers to join the fight and drive the invaders from their country.

Jonathan’s sign from the Lord has usually been interpreted as the indicator as to whether he should engage the Philistines in battle. We generally read it as, “if they tell us to stay here we will not fight, but if they summon us to them we will fight and God will have indicated that he will give us victory.” But is that really what Jonathan said?

A careful reading of the verses suggests that the question for which Jonathan sought an answer was not, “Shall we fight?” but rather, “Where shall we fight?” The final words of verse 10 constitute a declaration of faith – The Lord has delivered them. That was not contingent upon what the Philistines would say. Jonathan was already confident of that fact.

Christians today often seek some kind of sign as to what God wants them to do. Many think that if only we lived in the time of miracles and direct revelations it would be so much easier to serve Christ. But how are we to know what God expects of us today when that kind of guidance is no longer provided?

The answer to this question is that we are told what God wants us to do. No, not through dreams, visions, signs, or special revelations. Jesus said it best, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). And again, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matthew 7:21).

God’s inspired word, the Bible, is our guide to all things in life. It provides instructions for pure and moral living, for spiritual service to God, for obtaining eternal salvation, and for entering into fellowship with Father and Son. The Bible tells us what to do, in all situations and circumstances. We do not need other guidance or information.

If there is uncertainty in our service to God it exists within the realm of circumstance. His word teaches us how to live but does not specify all of the physical situations where our service may produce the greatest results. Like Jonathan, we may seek a sign directing us to a particular battlefield.

Preachers and missionaries are obvious examples of those who make definitive choices as to their place of service. Two or more congregations may invite a minister to serve them. Several countries may offer productive fields of harvest. Where should one go? How are we to know? While definitive answers to those questions may not always be available, Jonathan’s example provides useful lessons.

First, we should have unwavering trust in God, leading to a commitment to serve him. Jonathan knew that the Lord was God of Israel and that the Philistines were the enemy. It went without saying that the Lord would be with him to help in battle. It also went without saying that any enemy of the Lord was also Jonathan’s enemy and must be resisted.

Second, we should always be open to God’s guidance, whether it is from his word, or by providential opportunities. Throughout my preaching career, I have been less than impressed by preachers who advertise in magazines for job opportunities but who limit the areas where they were willing to move. If our service is offered to God, should we not allow him some say in where he wishes to use us? I have admitted that there are places on this earth where I am happy that God has so far not indicated that he wishes me to go; that is considerably different from stating that I will only be interested in living and working in (for example) the Bible Belt of the U.S.

Finally, Jonathan showed a willingness to use whomever and whatever God provided in his service. There was no “time out” to go back to get some of the 1,000 men under his command (1 Samuel 13:2). Only his armor bearer was with him, but for Jonathan, that was enough. As Paul queried, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” Our inclination is often to list all of the resources which we think we must have for a given task and then to postpone the beginning of our work until they are all obtained. Such thinking causes many urgent tasks to go undone.

Because of Jonathan’s faith and courage, the Israelite army who had been hiding in fear came out to fight a much superior force and won a great victory. God is still all-powerful and still calls upon his people to engage the enemy. May we heed the words of the great hymn: “Soldiers of Christ arise and put your armor on.”

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Michael Brooks

Since 1988 Mike and his wife Brenda have been involved in foreign missions in South America, Africa, and South Asia. Beginning in 1999 they devoted full time to missions, primarily in Bangladesh and Nepal.

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