It is of value to learn lessons from the four occasions when servants of God are described as "men of God" for they were delivering a critical and key message to those taking the lead among the people of God. The second incident that we consider is the appearance of the man of God in 1 Kings 13 to bring a message of condemnation, yet future recovery, to King Jeroboam.
It is interesting to note at the outset that the man of God was sent to Bethel which is, of course, typical of the house of God (Gen 28.17; 1 Tim 3.15), yet was marked by departure and error. It was in those circumstances that the word of God from a man of God was brought to bear. It is a challenge to the writer that where error and departure is seen among the people of God the correct response for the servants of God is not to bemoan or ignore, but to seek help from the word of God to give direction in the matter.
Here the man of God finds Jeroboam at the altar. Jeroboam's position there was typical and symptomatic of the whole erroneous system he had brought into place. Even a cursory reading of 1 and 2 Kings indicates how heinous God considered Jeroboam's wickedness to be, with repeated reference to the sin of "Jeroboam the son of Nebat". Poor leadership had caused division among the people of God (1 Kings 12). Jeroboam had been appointed to lead the northern kingdom. However, he became concerned that the people of God would travel to worship at the place of the Name and seems to have been deeply concerned when the priestly men began to travel from the northern kingdom to Jerusalem (2 Chr 11.13-17). In order to protect his own position he set up his own objects of worship in the form of the golden calves at Bethel and Dan, before instituting a new order of approach to God and a new priesthood. He took a place for which he was not fitted and led the people of God into error in order to preserve his position of leadership and rule among them. No doubt Jeroboam would have said that his innovations were designed to promote convenience for his subjects. However, the key purpose of this message from the man of God was to demonstrate that it was not traditions but truth that was at stake. God had placed His name in Jerusalem. It was not open to His people to decide unilaterally that they would gather elsewhere on a different basis. Of course, it is instructive that the initial error was then effectively the precursor to an apostate religion, with that error having consequences for generations to come.
Surely this is a message for today? When it is not tradition but truth at stake there is no room for innovation however clever the idea may seem: the pattern regulating the way in which Christians ought to behave collectively is not open to improvisation and ought not to have the fingerprints of man upon it. Equally, man-made traditions should not be religiously and legally enforced among the believers. However, the Scriptures we are considering do illustrate how seriously God regards doctrinal error, particularly in relation to approaching God in the service of the sanctuary.
In v.2 the man of God who had come out of Judah speaks prophetically to indicate that there would be a day when the error was purged practically. If we may lift the application, it would require godly and spiritual leadership to rediscover the Scriptures before the calves were pulled down and the error purged. 2 Kings 23 records the early features of Josiah's reign which, following on the rediscovery of the Word of God, focussed on promoting obedience, cleansing the house of God, and removal of idolatry (by application rekindling the affection of God's people for Him).
The lesson is not only to identify the error (that is clearly important from the message from the man of God), but also to understand that recovery is possible when the Word of God is rediscovered and obedience to it is prompted. Practically, how much primacy do we give to the study and teaching of the word of God? It seems that the removal of idols was key to the recovery and that must teach us about the requirement to have our affections and hearts refocused on Christ if error is to be avoided.
Notice, now, that the word of God, faithfully proclaimed, was not popular with the king who was promoting error. It should come as no surprise to us if the truth is unacceptable (although, to be clear, the Word of God should never become unacceptable because of the way we present it) but it is still what is required. We learn from v.4 that the word of the man of God was not only validated by the way he responded to the attack, but his person was divinely protected until he had discharged the work God had for him. We have been well taught that the servant of God is untouchable as long as he moves in the will of God. If we are moving in the will of God we can be guaranteed that we will have the protection to fulfil the work of God right up until the point that He would have us removed from the battlefield.
Without wishing to over-spritualise, we notice that in v.5 the altar was broken as this man of God had said, typifying the fact that error cannot stand in the place of the Word of God. We emphasise again that the way to deal with error is not by opinion or gossip but by faithful reference to the Word of God.
There may be lessons too in the way in which the man of God dealt with the king as the proponent of the error. It is clear in v.6 that God's messenger was public in his condemnation of the error but gracious in healing Jeroboam. However, he had no desire to be indebted to or have anything from Jeroboam.
As an onlooker, we would have said the work of the man of God was done. What could go wrong now? With the help of God he had stood in the face of a king. However, we learn in v.9 that the word of God had been clear that he was to "eat no bread, nor drink water". He failed on the approach to home (vv.10ff) and that ought to be a lesson to us. The story is well known and this article does not concentrate on the failing of the man of God, but rather his message. However, it is interesting that he was taken in and stumbled by a man who ought to have known better and a man who professed to be in touch with God. His error is interesting, however, in relation to his message. Even though he failed, his message was accurate. While it is a solemn thing to teach the Word of God (James 3.1), it is the listeners' responsibility to obey the Word of God if it is taught accurately.
Sadly this man's message made no long term difference in Jeroboam's life. The king desecrated the sanctuary, took a place and position for which he was not fitted, and infected coming generations with error. What is our legacy? However, ultimately, although he never lived to see it, the man of God's message was vindicated by his God and his message was brought to fruition. God's purpose will not fail! May we be purged from our own ideas and listen to this message from the man of God.
To be continued.