Jeremiah 35 is one of the oddest chapters in the Bible. It should also be considered one of the most alarming – particularly for nominal Evangelicals.
In this chapter the prophet Jeremiah is instructed to seek out a small tribe of desert nomads called the Rechabites. He is to bring them to the house of the Lord and show them hospitality. When he sets wine before them they tell Jeremiah that they cannot partake, having been forbidden by their founding father Jonadad. They go on to detail a few other of his instructions, all of which they have faithfully kept for generations.
God then gives a word to Jeremiah for the people of Israel concerning the obedience of the Rechabites. He says:
The command that Jonadab the son of Rechab gave to his sons, to drink no wine, has been kept, and they drink none to this day, for they have obeyed their father’s command. I have spoken to you persistently, but you have not listened to me. I have sent to you all my servants the prophets, sending them persistently, saying, ‘Turn now every one of you from his evil way, and amend your deeds, and do not go after other gods to serve them, and then you shall dwell in the land that I gave to you and your fathers.’ But you did not incline your ear or listen to me. The sons of Jonadab the son of Rechab have kept the command that their father gave them, but this people has not obeyed me. (Jeremiah 35:14–16 ESV)
This is a classic example of the “how much more” rhetorical technique. If these desert nomads were willing to be obedient to the commands of their human father – some of which were borderline absurd – how much more ought you to have been willing to submit to the commands of your heavenly father? All of which are wise and life giving?
To the Rechabites Jeremiah is told to give this parting word:
Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Because you have obeyed the command of Jonadab your father and kept all his precepts and done all that he commanded you, therefore thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Jonadab the son of Rechab shall never lack a man to stand before me. (Jeremiah 35:18–19 ESV)
God promises to be gracious in saving and preserving a remnant from among the Rechabites because they have been faithful in obeying the commands of their father. There is no indication in the text that they knew or were concerned with the commands of Moses. There is no indication that they knew anything about the promises of grace in the Old Testament. There is no indication that they intended to unite themselves to the people of Israel as proselytes.
Among the clearest implications of the text are these.
Mere Association Counts for Nothing
Jesus said the same in the New Testament:
Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ (Matthew 7:21–23 ESV)
The word translated there as “workers of lawlessness” is the Greek word anomia and it means “violation or transgression of the law.” Jesus says that many people who claim an association with Jesus will be cast out of heaven because they are lawbreakers. They are transgressors of the law. If their association with Jesus did not entail an ongoing battle with sin it counts for nothing.
Few things in the Bible are clearer than that.
That is the very point that Jeremiah has been trying to impress upon his own generation. In his day people were assuming that because they belonged to the covenant community and because they were associated with the worship of the temple it was impossible that they should come under judgment. In response to this error the prophet said:
Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your deeds, and I will let you dwell in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.’ (Jeremiah 7:3–4 ESV)
Mere association is not some sort of magic talisman that will see us safely through the reality of Divine Judgment. Believing, belonging and behaving must go together.
Ignorant Obedience Is Preferable to Nominalism And Lawlessness
That nominalism and lawless would be condemned in Jeremiah 35 is not surprising. That the ignorant obedience of the Rechabites would be preferred, however, most certainly is. In Jeremiah 35 God promises grace to a remnant of these Rechabites on the basis of their faithful obedience to a set of commands that have nothing to do with the covenant of God.
That is undeniably remarkable.
I have to stop myself from running ahead in my theological imagination. I have to remind myself that in Romans 9 the Apostle Paul tells us that election unto grace has nothing to do with obedience or disobedience. He says:
though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls—she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” (Romans 9:11–13 ESV)
So God does not choose on the basis of obedience and yet it cannot be denied that God responds to obedience – we see it in Jeremiah 35 – and therefore I wonder, humbly, what we can and should say in response to this passage.
Let me say first that I believe this verse with all my heart, mind and soul:
This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:11–12 ESV)
I do not believe that people can be saved simply by obeying what their non-Christian religion teaches and commands. I do not believe, for example, that faithful and obedient Muslims will be saved apart from their conversion to faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
I am prepared to say this: I think it would be better to be an obedient Muslim on Judgment Day than a lawless, nominal Evangelical. I say that not simply on the basis of Jeremiah 35 but even more so on the basis of Luke 12:47-48:
And that servant who knew his master’s will but did not get ready or act according to his will, will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, will receive a light beating. Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more. (Luke 12:47–48 ESV)
Those who have access to the light and disobey it will receive the greatest punishment. Those who are ignorant but faithful will receive the least.
Some People Are Closer to the Kingdom of God Than Others
There is a sense in which all unsaved people are equally unsaved. Just like you can’t be a little bit pregnant, so too you can’t be a little bit saved. You either are or you aren’t.
Jesus said to a certain wise and zealous man: “You are not far from the kingdom of God” (Mark 12:34 ESV).
Say what you like about Islam – and I’ve said plenty – but like the Rechabites in this story they know what it is to obey and they know what it is to be faithful. Is that a better launching pad into the true Christian faith than North American materialism, self-indulgence and radical autonomy? Does it put them nearer to the kingdom than nominal and lawless Evangelicals who finger their golden crosses while watching Game of Thrones?
I should think so.
And that gives me ample reason to pray for the conversion of my Muslim friends and to be concerned over the state of my own soul.
Dear Lord, convert my Muslim neighbor and reform my wayward heart!
Even so, come Lord Jesus.
To learn more from pastor and Bible teacher Paul Carter be sure to check out the new cycle of the Into The Word podcast. The most recent episodes take you chapter by chapter through the whole Gospel of Mark. You can find it here.