Scott Harrison is the founder of a non-profit organisation called charity: water, which seeks to provide safe drinking water to people in developing nations. Harrison founded the organisation in 2006 with the commitment that 100% of donations to the charity would go toward water projects, with nothing being used to fund staff salaries and administrative overheads. To make this model sustainable, charity: water created a separate fundraising arm dedicated to raising funds for the administrative costs of the non-profit. It soon became obvious that people were far more excited to donate money to water projects than to administrative overheads. Within a year, the organisation was struggling to cover administrative obligations, even while money for water projects was flowing in. With $881,000 in the water account, the organisation was but weeks from folding due to inability to cover salaries.
Harrison and his wife, Viktoria, prayed—“the get-down-on-your-knees-and-beg kind of praying,” as he put it—after which he cold emailed several tech entrepreneurs, asking for advice and financial assistance. These included Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, MySpace’s Tom Anderson, and Bebo’s Michael Birch. The emails went unanswered, except for the one to Michael Birch. Birch, who was at the time in secret talks to sell Bebo (which he did, within weeks, for $850 million), agreed to meet with Harrison to hear his pitch in person.
After their second meeting, Birch (who stated quite bluntly that he did not trust charities) asked Harrison for charity: water’s banking details. Harrison sent him the details, expecting a donation of perhaps $10,000 toward building a couple of wells. Three days later, Birch emailed Harrison telling him to expect a donation, in his personal capacity, of $1 million, to be used however he saw fit.
Several years later, a Sunday school teacher in Harrison’s church told her class about charity: water, impressing on them that there are children around the world with no access to clean drinking water. After class, eight-year-old Rachel Beckwith asked her mom to set up a charity: water campaign for her ninth birthday. She asked all her friends and family, in lieu of gifts, to give toward her campaign. Her goal was $300. By the end of the campaign, she had raised $220. Unperturbed, she told her mother that, for her next birthday, she would begin the campaign earlier and tell more people.
A few weeks later, Rachel was involved in a motor vehicle accident. Doctors didn’t think she would wake up and told her mother that she needed to consider switching off the life support system. She contacted one of her pastors to see if he would ask Harrison to reopen Rachel’s campaign in the hopes that they could hit the $300 goal while Rachel was still on life support. Harrison was glad to do so and personally donated $80 to ensure that Rachel’s goal was reached. The campaign was reopened for a few months and, when the church was informed, people began donating.
Rachel’s mom read every message that was left with every pledge, at first recognising names of church member after church member. Before long, she started seeing messages from people she didn’t know, both in America and internationally. By the time Rachel’s campaign ended, she had raised $1,265,823.
As I read these stories recently in Harrison’s memoir, the contrast between Michael Birch and Rachel Beckwith struck me. Michael Birch is a wealthy, influential entrepreneur, known around the world for his accomplishments. Outside of her mention in Harrison’s memoir, Rachel Beckwith was unknown to the world. Yet God used both to contribute significantly to charity: water’s vision.
In our journey through Judges, we have studied some pretty heavy hitters. Deborah and Barak and Gideon are larger than life. They are significant people who accomplished significant things. God used them greatly.
But we have also considered Tola and Jair, of whom we know virtually nothing, but whom God used equally. In this study, we will consider the ministries of three further unknowns: Ibzan, Elon, and Abdon. These three men were more like Rachel Beckwith than Michael Birch. Their names are not household names. Nobody remembers their stories. And yet, as God used Rachel Beckwith in a significant way, God used these three men in a significant way to accomplish great good for his people.
These three judges evidently judged in a time of relative peace for Israel. Jephthah’s story opened with reference to the people falling into evil (10:6) and Samson’s story opens on the same note (13:1). There is no mention of the people doing evil in the sight of the Lord in the verses before us. This suggests that their ministry was more about maintenance and less about deliverance. And while detail regarding their lives is scant, there are little clues that help us learn some important lessons about church maintenance.
Like Israel, churches sometimes go through times of upheaval. God then graciously steps in to restore order, at which time it is the responsibility of the church to maintain the order that has been restored. The story of these judges shows us how to maintain such order.
Church Maintenance Requires Intentionality
The first lesson we learn is that church maintenance requires intentionality. We glean this from the life of Ibzan:
After him Ibzan of Bethlehem judged Israel. He had thirty sons, and thirty daughters he gave in marriage outside his clan, and thirty daughters he brought in from outside for his sons. And he judged Israel seven years. Then Ibzan died and was buried at Bethlehem.
It is impossible to miss the contrast between Jephthah and Ibzan. Jephthah had one child. Through his own foolishness, his daughter never experienced the blessings of marriage and family. She died young, single, and childless. Ibzan, by contrast, was blessed with thirty sons and thirty daughters, each of whom was blessed with marriage and (presumably) children.
The key to this text, however, is the repetition of the word “outside.” Jephthah’s story ended with disunity in Israel and the people on the brink of civil war. Forty-two thousand Israelites lost their lives to fellow Israelites. The tension could be cut with a knife.
Ibzan recognised this tension and worked hard to restore and maintain peace in Israel. He did this by strategically arranging marriages of his own children to others “outside own clan,” bringing together God’s divided people. He recognised the need to restore peace in Israel and was intentional about doing so.
Church maintenance requires intentionality. Order in the church will not just happen. It requires church members who are willing to stand in the gaps.
I was pleased recently to speak to a few individuals in our church as we were seeking to gain deacon nominations in preparation for our annual general meeting. It was good to talk to some members who recognised areas of need and were willing to step into the gap.
At the same time, there are some areas of need for which it has proven difficult to find church members willing to serve. When need in a church is recognised, that need will only be met as members are willing to intentionally raise their hand to meet the need.
We see this, in fact, in the appointment of the first deacons in Acts 6. The apostles recognised a need and realised that it would not resolve itself without intentionality. They suggested a simple plan: Ask the church to nominate seven men whom they could appoint to meet the need. The result was not only that the need was met but that “the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7). The church’s assignment to make disciples was strengthened when church members were intentional about church maintenance.
We should be intentional about serving God’s people because Jesus Christ was intentional to save a people. There was a covenant in the Godhead, before the foundation of the world, that required Jesus to act in order to save God’s chosen ones. Jesus did everything required of him, in the face of every temptation to divert course, in order to save those people. Even when he knew what lay ahead of him “he set his face to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51). If Jesus showed such intentionality to save us—even when he was tired and when it was inconvenient—should we not be intentional in service?
Ibzan recognised a need in Israel and was intentional about doing what needed to be done to meet the need. The results of his efforts will be observed in a moment.
Church Maintenance Requires Identity
The second thing we glean from our text is that church maintenance requires identity. By “identity” I mean people who are willing to identify with the people of God, which is key to intentionality. Consider the account of Elon: “After him Elon the Zebulunite judged Israel, and he judged Israel ten years. Then Elon the Zebulunite died and was buried at Aijalon in the land of Zebulun” (12:11–12).
If there was scant information about Ibzan, there is virtually nothing about Elon. We are simply told that he judged Israel, that he did so for ten years, and that he died and was buried. There seems to be some significance, however, in the threefold repetition of Zebulun. He is twice referred to as “Elon the Zebulunite” and is said to have been buried “in the land of Zebulun.” Elon could not be separated from his tribe.
Unlike Ibzan and Abdon, there is no reference to Elon’s family. Perhaps it is because he was so closely associated with his tribe that his tribe were his people. He was not ashamed to be called a Zebulunite.
Church maintenance requires a close-knit community of people of the same interests. If we will maintain order in the church, it will require church members who love the church and are proud—in a right sense—to be associated with the church and its message. As Christians unashamedly identify with God’s people, they will be willing—and intentional—to serve those people.
Church maintenance is, in many ways, about service. It is about recognising the need to serve God’s people and being willing to serve because they identify with his people.
Once again, there is gospel motivation to do this. Jesus “is not ashamed to call [us] brothers” (Hebrews 2:11). John could not understand why Jesus would come to be baptised, but he did so in order to identify with those he came to save.
When we are baptised, we identify with Christ and with his people. Baptism is therefore a statement that, having been saved by Christ, we will commit to serving him and his people. It is our identity that drives our service.
Elon seems to have been proud to associate with his people, and that led him to serve them well for ten years. The result of his willingness to identify with his people is noted in the story of Abdon.
Church Maintenance Produces Prosperity
The third thing that we learn from this brief pericope is that church maintenance, properly done, produces prosperity.
After him Abdon the son of Hillel the Pirathonite judged Israel. He had forty sons and thirty grandsons, who rode on seventy donkeys, and he judged Israel eight years. Then Abdon the son of Hillel the Pirathonite died and was buried at Pirathon in the land of Ephraim, in the hill country of the Amalekites.
The text informs us that Pirathon was a town in Ephraim. This is significant, because the last time we read of Ephraim (12:1–7), they were at war with, and slaughtered by, their brothers in Israel. But thanks to Ibzan’s intentionality and Elon’s willingness to identify with his people, prosperity was seemingly restored to God’s people. Because God’s people were faithfully doing what he expected, he blessed his people with prosperity.
The concept of prosperity is seen in a few ways. First, Abdon’s descendants numbered seventy, which is symbolic of prosperity. The number reminds us of Jacob’s seventy descendants going into Egypt (Genesis 46:27) and of Gideon’s seventy sons (Judges 8:30). In both those instances, the mention of seventy descendants was symbolic of prosperity.
After a time of great turmoil for Jacob, in which he grieved the death of his favourite son, God restored his fortunes. All was well with Jacob as he headed to Egypt with his seventy descendants.
Mention of Gideon’s seventy sons comes at the end of his story, after he had defeated the enemy and restored peace to Israel.
There seems to be some significance to the mention of seventy descendants, which points in the direction of prosperity.
Second, Abdon’s descendants rode on donkeys. Donkeys were not common household possessions in those days. Owning a donkey was like owning a luxury Rolls Royce. It was a sign of prosperity. Things were going well for Ephraim and, indeed, for all of Israel.
Third, there is significance in the mention of the Amalekites, sworn enemies to Israel. Prosperity did not mean the absence of enemies, but it meant that God was blessing his people in the presence of his enemies. In the words of the psalmist, the Lord had prepared a table for his people in the presence of their enemies (Psalm 23:5).
This prosperity seems to have been the result of deliberate church maintenance. As the people were intentional about maintaining the order God had restored, and as they displayed a willingness to boldly identify with God’s people, God blessed with prosperity.
But let us also observe that this prosperity was obtained by faithful Israelites of whom we know otherwise little. It didn’t require special giftings or great deeds but simple faithfulness. Ibzan, Elon, and Abdon were more like Rachel Beckwith than Michael Birch. And it took their efforts, as well as Gideon’s, Jephthah’s, and Samson’s to bring prosperity to Israel.
Was this not a mark of Jesus’ ministry? Did his contemporaries not expect Messiah to come riding into Jerusalem on a white horse as a mighty warrior to defeat Israel’s political foes? But that is not how Jesus worked. Instead, he came like a young plant and like a root out of dry ground. There was no majestic form that attracted people to him and no beauty that people desired in him. On the contrary, he was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrow and acquainted with grief. People hid their faces from him and despised him. Yet this one bore our griefs and carried out sorrows. He was smitten by God and afflicted. He was pierced for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities. But in him we find our eternal prosperity.
Like Ibzan, Elon, and Abdon—and like Jesus himself—we do not need to be world famous and influential in order to help maintain order in God’s church. Instead, we need to be faithful, intentional servants, willing to identify with and therefore serve God and his people, and trust God to bless our efforts with prosperity. What will you do? Will you stand in the gaps and allow God to use your maintenance ministry to bless his church?