The minister as ecclesiastic

The Bible description of the destruction of Korah, Dathan, Abiram and their families puzzled the author for many years until he learned that "the sons of Korah died not."

C. Mervyn Maxwell, Ph.D., recently retired as professor of church history, Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

One of the clearest Bible memories of my childhood is the story of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram.

My family owned a volume of Scripture Prints, by the famous French engraver Doré, that further encouraged my youthful imagination. More than once I contemplated Doré's version of the fate of the three ambitious men. There, robed and equipped with full hieratic regalia, they plunge between open ragged rocks. Their household goods tumble on top of them, while smoking flames await them deep in the earth.

But more gripping even than Dore's drawing was my awareness that their children went down with them. I read the dramatic portrayal in the King James Version:

"And he [Moses] spake unto the congregation, saying, Depart, I pray you, from the tents of these wicked men, and touch nothing of their's, lest ye be consumed in all their sins. So they gat up from the tabernacle of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, on every side: and Dathan and Abiram came out, and stood in the door of their tents, and their wives, and their sons, and their little children. . . . And the earth opened her mouth, and swallowed them up, and their houses, and all the men that appertained unto Korah, and all their goods" (Num. 16:26-32).

A child myself, I wondered what went through the children's minds as they felt the earth open up. I thought again of Moses' appeal, "Depart, I pray you, from the tents of these wicked men,. .. lest ye be consumed in all their sins." I hoped, had I belonged to one of the families, that I would have obeyed Moses and run away.

All the rebels' children didn't die

Years later I noticed references to the sons of Korah, implying that centuries after the Exodus, Korah still had living descendants. Samuel the prophet and Heman the singer were among this group (1 Chron. 6:22-28,33-38). Eleven of the psalms (e.g., Ps. 84 and 85) are introduced as psalms of the sons of Korah.

Examination of 1 Chronicles 6:22-28, 33-38 shows that the sons of Korah of the psalms and elsewhere were indeed descendants of the same great-grandson of Levi who descended so unceremoniously into Sheol. But how could this have been?

To my personal relief and satisfaction, I discovered the answer in Numbers 26:11, a verse that states simply, "But the sons of Korah died not." A careful re reading of Numbers 16 shows that the original account omits Korah's family, stating that "Dathan and Abiram came out, and stood in the door of their tents, and their wives, and their sons, and their little children."

So all the rebels' children didn't die! They didn't all ignore Moses' final appeal. The sons of Korah paid heed. In stead of dying with the rebels, they lived to produce descendants of many generations who sang God's praises in the Temple courts.

"The sons of Korah died not."

I'm glad they didn't die; aren't you?

Korah, Dathan, and Abiram perceived themselves as noble champions of the people. They spoke up for the rights of laity. "All the congregation are holy," they asserted (Num. 16:3*), and not just the leaders. They boldly confronted a leadership that they alleged was arbitrary and faulty. Dathan and Abiram said Moses had led the people out of, rather than into, a land of milk and honey (verses 12-14). Albert George Butzer in The Interpreter's Bible urges that we not be too hard in judging these three men, because "today we glory in their two main contentions."1

And in truth many people do so glory.

They want a courageous ministry that doesn't flinch in calling sin by its right name, even when sin is committed by top administrators. The prophet Isaiah spoke of lifting up one's voice like a trumpet to expose sin, and he personally bore a straight testimony to Kings Ahaz and Hezekiah. We admire the Reformers for demanding change in belief and practice. Our own Advent movement was born amid a cry that dubbed other churches "Babylon"; and we respect our modern messenger's written reproofs.

Didn't Paul rebuke Peter? Didn't Jesus call His contemporary clergy "hypocrites," "serpents," and a "brood of vipers"? (Matt. 23:29, 33).

But there is a balancing side in Scripture. The Spirit expressly calls for unity, commanding us to bend our backs to achieve it. Inspiration requires us to shrink our sense of personal infallibility and replace it with open respect for the opinions of others, including leadership. Alongside mindless apathy and culpable complaisance, the Bible also denotes dis unity and disrespect for authority as sin.

New covenant promises

There are several versions of the new covenant in the Bible, and several different promises vouchsafed among these different versions. For example, there are four promises in the new covenant as formulated in Jeremiah 31:33, 34, and at least seven promises in the version found in Ezekiel 36:22-32.

In both Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 36 God makes the same promise: in Jeremiah, "I will be their God, and they shall be my people"; and in Ezekiel, "You shall be my people, and I will be your God." In both versions we also find that God has promised to engrave His law upon our hearts. Jeremiah quotes God as saying "I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts." Ezekiel has "I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes." And in Ezekiel God offers the additional promise "Through you I [will] vindicate my holiness" among the nations.

As we think about the minister's responsibility to reform and reprove the church, we must keep these new covenant promises in mind. Let us look at them now more closely.

1. "You shall be my people.'' The promise that we are to be God's "people" does not focus on our individual relationship with God. We find that implied in the words of another new covenant promise, "They shall all know me." The promise about a people invokes a corporate concept. God will have a whole people, a very special group.

The formation of a special people was God's goal when He led Israel out of Egypt: "The Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his own possession, out of all the peoples that are on the face of the earth. ... It is because the Lord loves you. . . . [He is] the faithful God who keeps [His] covenant and steadfast love" (Deut. 7:6-9).

To identify a people was the purpose of the plagues and the pillar of fire, of the windswept sea, the carnage of the crack troops, and the storm, flame, and trumpet blasts at Mount Sinai. To have a people of His own was the purpose of shed ding the Passover blood, which underlay and over-arched everything God did. God provided all in order to give birth to a nation, to a kingdom of priests, to His own special people.

This was also the purpose of the blood and pain and shame of the cross to bring out a special people united in love as well as in His name. In the New Testament the Passover Lamb spoke of the Good Shepherd who "lays down his life for the sheep," and added, "I have other sheep, that are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will heed my voice. So there shall be one flock, one shepherd" (John 10:11, 16).

On the way to the cross to give His life for the sheep, Jesus prayed, "I in them and thou in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that thou hast sent me and hast loved them even as thou hast loved me" (John 17:23). By using words like these the Lord our sacrifice enriched our understanding of atonement, making it imply at-one-ment between persons as well as between individuals and God.

In these end-time days God has worked anew as a "wonder-working God."2 And He will continue to work wonders on behalf of His special people the remnant who keep His commandments and have Christ's testimony. They are the saints who keep the commandments and have the faith of Jesus, the "144,000" who receive God's seal and stand on Mount Zion singing the song of Moses and the Lamb. They sing the song of Moses, rejoicing in deliverance from modem Egypt. They sing the song of the Passover Lamb, who wrought out the deliverance and who sees of the travail of His soul and is satisfied. This special group have "no guile" in their mouths (Rev. 14:5, KJV).

"God is leading out a people, not a few separate individuals here and there, one believing this thing, another that. . . . The third angel is leading out and purifying a people, and they should move with him unitedly. Some run ahead of the an gels that are leading this people; but they have to retrace every step, and meekly follow no faster than the angels lead."3

"Like a mighty army

Moves the church of God;

Brothers, we are treading

Where the saints have trod!"

So we sing, and we are entitled to sing.

.  .  .

But what if we needlessly disturb the unity of the faithful through ungracious criticism and self-glorifying innovations ?

.  .  .

Like a mighty army

Moves this bunch of men?

Griping and conniving

Every day till ten!

Even the ancient saints wait to receive their reward, so insistent is God on saving a single, united, happy, loyal people. Hebrews 11:39, 40 reminds us that "these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise: . . . that they without us should not be made perfect. "(KJV).

Our zealous urgency in reforming the church needs tempering with a keen appreciation of God's covenant promise of a united church.

"The sons of Korah died not." Rather than lend support to a popular schism, they loyally stood with the body of God's chosen people.

2. "I will put my spirit within you." "Love is the fulfilling of the law" (Rom. 13:10). When God covenanted to have His Spirit engrave His law upon our hearts, it was His law of love. And love, as we know, "seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth" (1 Cor. 13:5, 6, KJV).

One of the many forms in which new covenant promises occur in the Bible is in Galatians 5:22: "The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, " and so on (KJV). Love is a way we feel about another person. When God's Spirit writes His law in the hearts of His followers, they feel an affection and appreciation that makes possible a uniquely united people.

Christ calls His people to be reformers, but we should have a periodic spiritual cardiogram to learn whether we're let ting the Spirit write His law of affection in our hearts. "If any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his" (Rom. 8:9, KJV). "The sons of Korah died not." More than they loved their father, they loved God's chosen people.

3. "Through you I [will] vindicate my holiness." When Jesus took the cup rep resenting the blood of the Passover Lamb and said "This cup is the new covenant in my blood" (1 Cor. 11:25), He had more in mind than the forgiveness of sin. The new covenant promises peoplehood to the erstwhile oppressed and disinherited. It promises to apply the principle of love to the innermost seat of our emotions and attitudes. And it also promises us the exalted privilege of being part of a group of people through which God can vindicate His honor before the nations.

In line with this third promise, when Jesus in the upper room commanded His disciples to love one another, He added the words "631 this all men will know that you are my disciples" (John 13:35). Later that evening He pleaded with the Father that "they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that thou hast sent me and hast loved them even as thou hast loved me."

Jesus knew that the loving loyalty and obedience displayed by His once unruly and quarrelsome disciples would give evidence to the world around that God had sent Him. It would show that He had loved them into loving one another. Their mutual confidence and perfect atonement would communicate some thing vital about God and about the meaning of Christ's mission that no one could contradict.

We rightly sing, in terms of our personal experiences,

"Redeemed! and so happy in Jesus!...

His child, and forever, I am."

But when we realize our role in God's chosen community and that our love must help vindicate God's character in a hostile and suspicious world, we can also sing,

"Redeemed to bring honor to Jesus,

A part of His people I am."

When Augustine turned his back on family affection and declared that man is made for God, he painted a one-sided picture. Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher emperor, painted another one-sided picture when he said that men, like the upper and lower teeth, are made for one another. Neither writer was wholly right. God made us for Himself and for one another. We show the world our love for Him and His love for us by loving one another.

"The sons of Korah died not." They wanted nothing of their father's disaffection. They refused to have any part in the ugly message that the rebels were communicating about God and about His selection of church leadership.

Other counsels

4. "Strive for peace with all men.'' Even loving believers doesn't always come naturally for most of us. Which is why we need the Spirit to write God's law in our hearts. Paul knew that we would also need to cooperate with the Spirit. So he wrote, "Strive for peace with all men" (Heb. 12:14). "Try to be at peace" (TEV). "Let it be your ambition" (Phillips). "Make every effort" (NIV).

If we need to strive to be at peace with everyone, how much more should we make an attempt with those in the house hold of faith. "I appeal to you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no dissensions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment" (1 Cor. 1:10).

"By the grace given to me," pleaded Paul, "I bid every one among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think" (Rom. 12:3). "Be kindly affectioned one to another with brotherly love; in honour preferring one an other" (verse 10, KJV). "Be devoted to one another" (NIV). "Love one another warmly as Christian brothers, and be eager to show respect for one another" (TEV). "Let the other man have the credit" (Phillips).

Wrote the end-time messenger to the remnant people: "Cultivate love, uproot suspicion, envy, jealousy, and the thinking and the speaking of evil. Press together, work as one man. Be at peace among yourselves."4

"Again and again the angel has said to me, 'Press together, press together, be of one mind, of one judgment.'"5

"Oh, how many times, when I have seemed to be in the presence of God and holy angels, I have heard the angel voice saying, 'Press together, press together, press together.' "6

"If possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all" (Rom. 12:18). "Strive for peace with all men."

5. "Obey . . . for conscience' sake." Earnest Christians often quote Acts 5:29: "We must obey God rather than men." Sometimes it is essential for us to disobey lawful authority. But it is important to remember that part of our obedience to God is obedience to administration. If a person's conscience leads him to think he should disobey human government because of Acts 5:29, he should remember that the Bible also contains Romans 13:5: "You must obey ... for conscience' sake" (Jerusalem).

"You must all obey the governing authorities. Since all government comes from God, the civil authorities were appointed by God, and so anyone who resists authority is rebelling against God's decision, and such an act is bound to be punished. . . . You must obey, therefore, not only because you are afraid of being punished, but also for conscience' sake" (verses 1-5, Jerusalem).

In 1 Timothy 2:1, 2, Paul gives the highest priority to loyalty to human leadership: "First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions and thanksgivings be made for all men, for kings and all who are in high positions."

Members of a group who love one an other will not despise their leaders. In trial, they will pray for their leaders' success; in failure, for their forgiveness; in crisis, for their guidance; in error, for their enlightenment. But belittle them in public? Never! Not for a moment would they assault them with invectives. With the law of love Spirit-written at the seat of their attitudes and emotions, how could they?

Disrespect is one thing; disagreement is another. Jesus did not agree with some practices of the church administration in His day. But when He disagreed, He showed respect. He wrote their sins in the sand. He did not willingly alienate anyone for He had come "to seek and to save the lost" (Luke 19:10).

But isn't it true that on another occasion Jesus publicly catalogued the leaders' sins and called them "hypocrites," "serpents," and a "brood of vipers"? (see Matt. 23). This brings us to yet another vital point.

6. Could you give your life to save him? Ellen White once asked professed members of God's people, "Do you feel, when a brother errs, that you could give your life to save him? If you feel thus, you can approach him and affect his heart; you are just the one to visit that brother."7

There are certainly times that oblige us to disagree and even disassociate ourselves. Romans 16:17 specifically charges us to "take note of those who create dissensions and difficulties, in op position to the doctrine which you have been taught; avoid them." Paul proceeds to unmask their hypocrisy as Jesus unmasked that of the Pharisees. Paul says that the dissension makers "do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by fair and flattering words they deceive the hearts of the simple-minded" (verse 18).

On one occasion Paul publicly rebuked Peter for a momentary lapse from a well-publicized church regulation. But we find on Paul's part no chronic toxic draining away of his respect for Peter. In the same context where we read of Paul's rebuke, Paul tells us that God had appointed Peter and himself to a major role in missionary evangelism (Gal. 2:7). Paul must have known Peter would take the rebuke manfully in the same way he had accepted Christ's rebukes years before.

If anyone attempted to drain away someone else's authority in those days, it was some of the leading Jerusalem Christians. As the years passed, these leaders became thoughtlessly jealous of Paul's great success. "Throughout his ministry, Paul had looked to God for direct guidance. At the same time, he had been very careful to labor in harmony with the decisions of the general council at Jerusalem, and as a result the churches were 'established in the faith, and increased in number daily' (Acts 16:5, KJV)."8

On his last known journey to Jerusalem, "notwithstanding the lack of sympathy shown him by some," Paul "found comfort in the consciousness that he had done his duty in encouraging in his converts a spirit of loyalty, generosity, and brotherly love, as revealed on this occasion in the liberal contributions which he was enabled to place before the Jewish elders."9

We know that Paul demonstrated his loyalty to the central leadership of his day by cooperating with their Temple vow suggestion, and thereby spent the next several years in jail. Yet there is no record that he complained even once about the leading brethren taking advantage of him.

And what about Jesus? "Jesus did not suppress one word of truth, but He uttered it always in love. He exercised the greatest tact and thoughtful, kind attention in His intercourse with the people. He was never rude, never needlessly spoke a severe word, never gave needless pain to a sensitive soul. . . . He denounced hypocrisy, unbelief, and iniquity; but tears were in His voice as He uttered His scathing rebukes."10

Christ listed the sins of His contemporary clergy with the voice of a broken-hearted lover. He addressed them like a man who in three days would die for them on a cross. "Do you feel, when a brother errs, that you could give your life to save him? If you feel thus, you can approach him and affect his heart; you are just the one to visit that brother."

7. "Depart, I pray you, from the tents of these wicked men.'' We noted in beginning that Korah, Dathan, and Abiram perceived themselves as noble champions of the people.

But Moses called them "wicked men"; and wicked, in truth, they were, for all the people were by no means "holy." Rather they were called to be holy (Ex. 22:31, KJV). Citing Egypt as a land of milk and honey artfully overlooked that nation's brickyards. And implying that Moses alone maneuvered the Exodus was sheer blasphemy.

Moses later reminded the Israelites that it was God who brought them out of Egypt, with a great hand and mighty wonders (Deut. 4:34). Moses' word was supernaturalist and triumphalist, but it was nonetheless the truth.

Korah, Dathan, and Abiram denied God's authority through His designated human leadership and claimed that any layman could lead as well as Moses did. In doing so they offered the people one more humanist administration of the type that has always failed. These men wanted to retreat to Egypt, not advance with God to the Promised Land.

God's new covenant envisions a people whom He has led out and trans formed, one through whom He has brought honor to His name, one in whom the members lay aside their personal pride in the esteem with which they highly regard one another.

Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, sad to say, still swing their censers in the congregation of the Lord. And the words of Moses still plead "Depart, I pray you, from the tents of these wicked men, and touch nothing of their's, lest ye be consumed in all their sins."

It is encouraging to read that on one occasion Moses' appeal had some effect. "The sons of Korah died not."

*Unless otherwise noted, the Bible texts that follow are from the Revised Standard Version.

1. The Interpreter's Bible, vol. 2, pp. 221, 222.

2. Testimonies, vol. 6, p. 365.

3. Ibid., vol. l,p. 207.

4. Sons and Daughters of God, p. 295.

5. Evangelism, p. 102.

6. Selected Messages, book 2, p. 374-

7. Testimonies, vol. 1, p. 166. (Italics supplied.)

8. The Acts of the Apostles, p. 402.

9. Ibid.

10. Steps to Christ, p. 12.


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C. Mervyn Maxwell, Ph.D., recently retired as professor of church history, Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

December 1990

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