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Author:Rev. Ted Gray
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Congregation:First United Reformed Church
 Oak Lawn, Illinois
 www.oaklawnurc.org/
 
Title:Bethel or Beth-Aven?
Text:2 Kings 2:23-25 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Running the race
 
Preached:01/22/2017
Added:2017-01-30
Updated:2017-02-13
 

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Ted Gray, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.


Pastor Ted Gray
01/22/2017 – p.m.
Bethel or Beth-Aven?”
2 Kings 2:23-25
 
When I was child my family read from the King James Version of the Bible which translates verse 23 and 24 this way: And he went up from thence unto Bethel: and as he was going up by the way, there came forth little children out of the city, and mocked him, and said unto him, Go up, thou bald head; go up, thou bald head. And he turned back, and looked on them, and cursed them in the name of the LORD. And there came forth two she bears out of the wood, and tare forty and two children of them.
 
I remember my father reading that passage after dinner and thinking to myself, “I’m a young child, a little child, and I’ve laughed at people who were bald. What type of trouble am I in!” It never seemed right to me that those who made fun of Elisha for being bald received such severe judgment. After all what child, and for that matter, what adult hasn’t laughed at some jokes about baldness?
 
The account of Elisha at Bethel seems harsh, unless you consider the background of what was really going on, which includes:
 
The History of Bethel
 
Bethel is Hebrew for “House of God.”  Although Bethel is not mentioned in the New Testament it is mentioned over 60 times in the Old Testament. In Genesis 12:8 we read how Abraham pitched his tent and built an altar. That in itself is significant. He realized he was just a sojourner, just a pilgrim, passing through this earth, so he pitched his tent. But he had no doubt about the eternity of Almighty God so he built an altar. And where did he build the alter? Genesis 12:8 says that it was between the hills east of Bethel, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east.
 
Bethel was also significant in Jacob’s life. You recall that he had that remarkable dream of a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven and angels of God were ascending and descending on it. When Jacob awoke from his sleep he thought, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.” It was then that Jacob called that place where he saw the stairway to heaven “Bethel” meaning the house of God. Formerly, it had been named Luz. (Genesis 28:10-22)
 
Centuries later, after the Israelites were led out of Egypt back to the promised land, Bethel was a prominent place as the ark of the covenant was in Bethel for a lengthy time. Judges 20:18, and several other passages, describe how the people went to Bethel to inquire about the Lord’s will; they recognized the significance of Bethel as being God’s house, the place where he would meet with his people through the high priest at the ark of the covenant.
 
In the era of the patriarchs, and later when the Israelites were initially in the promised land, Bethel was a place of spiritual significance and blessing. But, unfortunately, Bethel was radically changed under the rule of wicked King Jeroboam. You recall that after Solomon's death the twelve tribes were divided. Israel followed Jeroboam and Judah followed Rehoboam. King Jeroboam was afraid that the Israelites would go to Jerusalem to worship the Lord there, so he made two golden calves. He said to the people, “It is too much for you to go to Jerusalem. Here are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.” One he set up in Bethel and the other in Dan. (1 Kings 12:28-29)
 
From that time forward Bethel sank ever deeper into idolatry. Instead of worshiping the Lord as they had been commanded, they worshipped the golden calf and rebelled against the Lord. Throughout the Bible we read of the terrible sin that Jeroboam brought upon Israel.
 
Bethel was so wicked that some of the prophets referred to it not as Bethel, but Beth-Aven, which means house of evil. Hosea prophesied about the judgment of the Lord that would come upon Israel with these words in Hosea 10:5: The people who live in Samaria fear for the calf idol of Beth-Aven. Its people will mourn over it, and so will its idolatrous priests, those who had rejoiced over its splendor, because it is taken from them into exile.
 
It was into such a scene that Elisha came. As he came into Bethel he came into a city and culture that had forsaken the God of Scripture to worship a golden calf. It was a city where people would rather worship idols than the one true and living God.
 
Ridicule and Disdain for Elisha and His God
 
And the jeering of the youths reflected the mindset of the community. These young people were simply expressing the ridicule for Elisha that they had learned from their families and from their community. They ridiculed him, not just for his bald head, but because he was a prophet of God and not a follower of Jeroboam’s golden calf.
 
The Hebrew translated in the King James Version of the Bible (KJV), and also the English Standard Version (ESV), which follows the same original manuscripts, puts emphasis on the children being little. But the Hebrew translated “little children” in the old King James and “youths” in the original New International Version (NIV) conveys a wide range of age. For example, Solomon used the same two Hebrew words in his prayer after becoming king of Israel. He prayed, in 1 Kings 3:7, “I am but a little child” yet he was, at that time about twenty years old.
 
The point is, these were not little children of five or six, but were young people old enough to know better. They were a group of young people who were at the age of accountability who were ridiculing Elisha, most likely with the same type of ridicule and disdain as they heard in their homes and in the community of Bethel.
 
It is also significant that the youths initiated this confrontation with Elisha. Verse 23 tells us that Elisha was “walking along the road” and these youths “came out of town” to jeer him. There was a premeditated malice in the way they sought him out in order to harass him.
 
You notice that they did not just say, “Go on up, you baldhead!” one time, but rather repeated it again. Their ridicule was repetitious, purposely so, in order to show their utter disdain, not only for Elisha, but also for the God whom he worshipped and proclaimed.
 
“Go On Up!”
 
Some commentators look to the phrase, “Go on up” as describing the hilly terrain. The terrain was indeed hilly. When Genesis 12 describes the altar that Abraham built, it describes it as being between the hills of Bethel and Ai. And our passage tells us that from Bethel Elisha was headed to Mount Carmel, which is almost 2,000 feet (546 meters) above sea level.
 
But most commentators point out that the phrase, “Go on up, you bald head,” signified much more than the hilly terrain of the area. It was most likely intended to mock the ascension of Elijah. Elijah had boldly denounced all idolatry. On Mount Carmel he had proven the power of God over the idols of Baal. And he had undoubtedly addressed the idolatry of Bethel where the golden calf was worshiped as well.
 
The people of Bethel had most certainly heard about the prophets of Jericho looking for Elijah and not finding him. We can be sure that they were glad that he was out of the picture. Worshipers of the golden calf would not believe in the power of God to bring Elijah into glory in the chariot of fire. So they used the expression, “Go on up, you bald head,” to express their disdain for Elijah and for the God who had taken him to glory.
 
In effect they were saying to Elisha, “If Elijah really went up into heaven why don’t you, too? If it’s really possible to ascend into glory go on up, you old bald head!” As such, their attack and their ridicule against the prophet of God was an attack against God himself. They were ridiculing the God of glory for bringing a faithful servant home in a chariot of fire.
 
Their taunting and disbelief foreshadowed the taunts given to Jesus on the cross, where those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads and saying, “You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” So also the chief priests, with the scribes and elders, mocked him, saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him.” (Matthew 27:39-42)
 
Acceptable Religions
 
Having seen something of the background, how are we to apply this unique episode recorded for us in God’s word, and given to us for our instruction, reproof and training in righteousness?
 
One application is that religion itself is not always ridiculed by the world. Bethel was a very religious town. They took seriously the worship of the golden calf that Jeroboam had set up both in Bethel and Dan. They were religious, but their religion was a false religion. Yet it was highly revered and esteemed. The worship of the golden calf was considered much more worthwhile and honorable than the worship of the God that Elisha and Elijah proclaimed.
 
Over the centuries has that changed? The false religions are different than in Jeroboam’s day, but the acceptance of false religion continues. Religions that do not accept the full teaching of Scripture, such as the religion of Islam, are respected increasingly in our culture and around the world. Even the practice of witchcraft is accepted by the United States government as a respected, tax exempt religious organization, even to the point of having places for Wicca worship at the Air Force training center in Colorado.
 
Any vague type of “spirituality” is lauded as a wonderful thing. Someone like Oprah Winfrey, who is “spiritual” is accepted and praised by most people in our culture. Why is that? It is because false religion is acceptable to humanity; the religion that is ridiculed and persecuted is the biblical, Christ-centered worship of our Lord.
 
We should not be surprised by that, for Jesus told us what would happen to those who faithfully follow him.  In John 15:18-20 Jesus said, “If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.”
 
Elisha was ridiculed in Bethel because he worshiped and proclaimed the one true God of Scripture. In our world today we still see where every type of idolatry is acceptable and praised while true Christianity is ridiculed and persecuted. And it will be that way until the end of time. From Romans chapter 1, as well as many other chapters of Scripture, we recognize that humanity refuses to worship the Lord even though God’s identity is clear from what he has made, leaving all humanity without excuse.
 
But because human beings are created in the image of God there is a vacuum within when he is rejected. That vacuum then becomes filled with false religion, with every type of idolatry imaginable, because people will worship something, even if it is as foolish and useless as a golden calf. Even atheists have faith in what they believe, and innumerable “golden calves” are the objects of worship in our culture today.
 
God’s Grace and His Judgment
 
A second application is that God’s grace and his judgment go hand in hand. God is gracious, but he is also just and will bring punishment on those who reject him and his messengers.
 
Verse 19-22 of this chapter (as we saw last week) teach that there is blessing for those who listen to God’s Word and accept his messengers. The people of Jericho recognized that their water was polluted and so they sought Elisha out in humility, seeking the help of Elisha’s God. The Lord had mercy and cleansed the water, which points to the cleansing from pollution within the heart of everyone who believes in Jesus Christ. Verse 19-22 describe the great mercy of God.
 
But the passage before us reminds us so very clearly that there is certain judgment for those who reject God’s word and his messengers. Verse 24 describes how Elisha called down curses in the name of the Lord. Then two bears came out of the woods and mauled 42 of the youths.
 
God is merciful, but he is also just. He gave the people of the Old Testament warning after warning that judgment would come upon them if they refused to live according to his word. In faithfulness he sent prophet after prophet to them. Yet they despised the prophets just as they ridiculed and mocked Elisha in this account.
 
2 Chronicles 36:15-16 describes it this way: The LORD, the God of their fathers, sent word to them again and again by his messengers, because he had compassion on his people and on his dwelling place; But they kept mocking the messengers of God, despising his words and scoffing at his prophets, until the wrath of the LORD rose against his people, until there was no remedy. Therefore he brought up against them the king of the Chaldeans (Babylonians), who killed their young men with the sword in the house of their sanctuary and had no compassion on young man or virgin, old man or aged. He gave them all into his hand.
 
Many people look at how God allowed his people in the Old Testament era to face judgement, whether at the hands Babylonians or the Assyrians, or here in Bethel by the bears that came out of the woods and killed those young people. And they say, “The God of the Old Testament was harsh and cruel, but the God of the New Testament, Jesus Christ, is merciful and kind.” That is, in a nutshell, the teaching of the heretic Marcion who taught that the Old Testament God was cruel and that Christ came to appease the cruel God of the Old Testament.
 
But God showed his mercy and his grace in the Old Testament era just as he does in the New Testament era. And the Lord speaks bluntly of judgment in the New Testament era just as he did in the Old Testament era. Although many do not want to acknowledge it, Jesus spoke about hell more than anyone else in the pages of the New Testament.
 
Jesus spoke about mercy and warned about judgment on many occasions, including the words recorded in John 12:47-48, where he said, “If anyone hears my words and does not keep them, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world.”
 
There are many who will quote that verse without going on to the next verse. They teach a truncated gospel, one that speaks of Jesus as Savior but not as Judge. But in the next verse, John 12:48, Jesus says, “The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day.”
 
The message of the Old Testament and the message of the New Testament is the same. God is rich in mercy, gracious beyond our ability to grasp, loving, kind, the over flowing fountain of all good. But he is also just and righteous. As the eternal just and righteous God he must, and will, punish all who reject Him and ridicule the message – and messengers – he has sent.
 
“Bethel or Beth-Aven?”
 
And because God is both merciful and just we see where by necessity all humanity, figuratively speaking, is either in Bethel or Beth-Aven. We are either worshiping the Lord in spirit and in truth, or we are serving idols of our own making. We are either in Bethel, the place where God in grace meets with His people. Or we are in Beth-Aven, the place of unrepented wickedness that incurs the righteous and proper wrath and judgment of God upon it.
 
There is so much in a name: Bethel means house of God; Beth-Aven, house of wickedness. An eternal chasm separates the two destinies. The only way to be in God’s house is through saving faith in Jesus Christ. After describing the beauty of the place he will prepare for us, there in John 14, Jesus goes on to say in John 14:6, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
 
May you and I not be in the idolatry of Beth-Aven, but in the security, glory and grace of Bethel, through saving faith in Jesus Christ, now and always! Amen.
 
 
 
 
- bulletin outline -
 
 
 
From there Elisha went up to Bethel. As he was walking along the road, some youths came out of the town and jeered at him. “Go on up, you baldhead!” they said. “Go on up, you baldhead!” He turned around, looked at them and called down a curse on them in the name of the Lord. Then two bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the youths. –  2 Kings 2:23-24
 
“Bethel or Beth-Aven?”
2 Kings 2:23-25
 
I. The account of Elisha at Bethel seems harsh unless you consider:
     1) The history of Bethel, meaning “House of God” (Genesis 28:19). Bethel was later called “Beth-Aven” meaning “house of evil” (Hosea 10:5) as Jeroboam
          built a temple for a golden calf at Bethel (1 Kings 12:28-30)
 
 
 
     2) The jeering of the youths (23) reflected the mindset of the community. They jeered him, not just for his bald head, but because he was a prophet of God
         and not a follower of Jeroboam’s golden calf
 
 
   
     3) The phrase “Go on up” was most likely intended to mock the ascension of Elijah. Their taunting and disbelief foreshadowed the taunts given to Jesus on
          the cross (Matthew 27:39-44)
 
 
 
II. Applications:
     1) Religion itself is not ridiculed by the world. False religions are accepted, just as calf worship was revered in Bethel. It is biblical, Christ-centered religion
         that is ridiculed (John 15:18-25)
 
 
 
     2) There is blessing for those who listen to God’s Word and accept His messengers (19-22), but judgment for those who reject His Word and His
         messengers (24; 2 Chronicles 36:16; John 12:47-48)
 
 
 
     3) All humanity is either in Bethel or Beth-Aven. We are only in Bethel – God’s house –  through saving faith in His Son (John 14:6)

 

 

 

 

 




* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Ted Gray, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 01/2, Rev. Ted Gray

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