In the World But Not Of the World

A sermon on Genesis 38 by Coty Pinckney, Desiring God Community Church, Charlotte, NC, 10/10/04

How should Christians relate to a non-Christian culture?

Consider a new Christian – let’s call him Joe. A few months ago Joe saw the Passion movie. Then this week a believer – let’s call him George -  knocks on Joe’s door and gives him a copy of The Passion of Jesus Christ. He reads it, and is overwhelmed by God’s plan to work through the suffering of His Son for the salvation of all kinds of people. He calls George, and asks for more explanation. When George walks Joe through Quest for Joy, Joe sees for the first time his sin in pursuing his joy through cars and houses and family rather than through God. He sees that Jesus did pay the penalty for all his sins. He sees that knowing Jesus Christ will be the greatest joy of all. And God changes his heart, so that he turns from all those other sources of satisfaction and seeks his joy in Jesus. Joe becomes a new believer.

Now he faces a question: How should he relate to his old friends? His old neighbors? Indeed, how should he relate to the culture around him?

·        Should he sell everything, go live in a cave, and do nothing but read the Bible all day long?

·        Should he stay in his home and in his job, but as much as possible cut off all influences from non-Christians and the non-Christian culture?

·        Or perhaps should nothing change? Should he still go to the same movies, watch the same TV, tell the same jokes, read the same magazines?

How should Christians relate to a non-Christian culture?

Jesus helps us answer this question in the verses from John 17 that we read earlier. In this prayer, Jesus refers to his disciples as “those whom you gave me out of the world.” Our Lord makes a sharp distinction between his disciples and those who are not his disciples, saying, “I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me.” He elaborates on this thought by saying:

I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. John 17:14

God’s Word changes these men and women. They once were of the world. But God has given them to Jesus out of the world. Once, these disciples were considered part of the crowd, one of the guys. But now, God’s word has transformed them. They are different. Others see that. And the world hates those who are different.

So should all disciples isolate themselves from the world, going off to that cave?

Jesus says, “I will remain in the world no longer, but they are still in the world.” Indeed, He says, “As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world.”

Many commentators over the years try to summarize Jesus’ words by saying that Jesus’ disciples are IN the world but not OF the world.

He takes us OUT OF the world in the sense that He transforms us. We are NOT the same, we are changed by His word. We cannot and must not live as if nothing happened. Yet He sends us into the world. He sends us here so that we might be salt and light to this world. We are NOT to isolate ourselves. We are to show what He is like and to share the Good News with those who so desperately need to hear it.

But while we are on mission in the world, we are not to be stained by the world. So we must guard ourselves from worldly influences that cause us to seek joy in something other than Jesus. We are in the world, but not of the world.

This truth works itself out differently in different peoples’ lives, but the idea is the same: We are sent by God, we are on mission, we are engaged. To accomplish that mission, we must say no to cultural influences that shape out thoughts.

In today’s text, an ancestor of Jesus, Judah, fails to live by this dictum. Instead, he is in the world AND OF the world. He shows us the foolishness of not guarding ourselves from influences around us. Praise God, he also shows us the beginning of repentance, the first change after he hits rock bottom. We see Judah at his lowest point – a complete failure, sold out to the culture around him – but then we also see the first step of his transformation into a man of God.

Genesis 38 is a sordid story. It is not pleasant to read. Indeed, some commentators have suggested that it is not suitable as a sermon text! But note that the Bible doesn’t hide the ugliness of man’s sin. It never does. But unlike our popular culture, the Bible never titillates us with sin or glorifies sin. Instead it shows sin’s ugliness – and how God redeems ugly sinners.

So I pray that God might redeem sinners through this story, and teach us how to live in the world but not of the world.

We’ll examine this text and its lessons under two headings:

·        In the world and of the world

·        In the world and NOT of the world

In the World and Of the World

It happened at that time that Judah went down from his brothers and turned aside to a certain Adullamite, whose name was Hirah. 2 There Judah saw the daughter of a certain Canaanite whose name was Shua. He took her and went in to her. Genesis 38:1-2

Remember, from his early teens, Judah grew up near the Canaanite city of Shechem. Canaanite culture was sex-saturated, and ungodly in every way. Indeed, God had determined to destroy the Canaanite people. Yet Jacob in his foolishness lived right outside Shechem, allowing this culture to influence his sons.

At this point, Judah is in his early twenties. After Joseph is solid into slavery at his suggestion, Judah leaves home and lives like a Canaanite. His best friend is a Canaanite and he takes a Canaanite woman into his home. The text doesn’t even say he married her (though later in the chapter she is called his wife). This is exactly what Abraham did not want Isaac to do; this is exactly what Isaac did not want Jacob to do. They lived in tents, never building houses, considering themselves strangers and foreigners among the Canaanites. But Judah immerses himself in Canaanite culture. He acts just like the Canaanites – he sees a pretty woman who is willing, so he has sex with her and takes her into his home.

This wife bears Judah three sons: Er, Onan, and Shelah. When Er grows up, Judah finds a wife for him, Tamar – presumably another Canaanite. All we know about Er is in verse 7:

7 But Er, Judah's firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the LORD, and the LORD put him to death.

What makes him so wicked? The author doesn’t tell us, but this outcome is not surprising:

·        His father is living as a Canaanite;

·        He grew up immersed in Canaanite culture;

·        The whole family is ignoring the promises of God to Abraham;

·        If Er knew about Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, and Jacob, he only considered these stories as interesting family history; he did not consider these as present realities that drive how he should live, how he should relate to others.

So Judah is despising his birthright as effectively as Esau despised his. Esau married a Canaanite, and sold his birthright for a bowl of stew; Judah marries a Canaanite, and in effect sold his birthright for the pleasures of Canaanite life.

So God kills Er.

Chapter 37 ends with Jacob mourning over the son whom he thinks is dead. Here, Judah’s son is really dead – but there is no mention of Judah’s mourning for him. Judah fails as a father by failing to bring up his sons in a godly home and, evidently, by failing to care for them.

8 Then Judah said to Onan, "Go in to your brother's wife and perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her, and raise up offspring for your brother." 9 But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his. So whenever he went in to his brother's wife he would waste the semen on the ground, so as not to give offspring to his brother. 10 And what he did was wicked in the sight of the LORD, and he put him to death also. Genesis 38:8-10

In this culture, having descendants is vitally important. Among the Israelites and other ancient mid-East peoples, customs developed that would maximize the probability of every family producing offspring.  This is called levirate marriage. If a married man died without producing children, his brother would take the wife. Children born to her would belong to the original husband, not to the brother who fathered them. These children would eventually receive the original husband’s share of the family’s inheritance.

So do understand Onan’s incentive for not producing children by Tamar? At this point, Judah’s estate will be divided between Onan and Shelah. If Tamar has a child, that child will belong to Er, and will receives Er’s share of the inheritance. This will reduce Onan’s share of the inheritance by a considerable amount. So if Onan fathers a child, he loses money.

Now, Onan could have said that to Judah; he could have refused to take Tamar into his house. But instead Onan wants to have his cake and eat it too. Evidently he finds Tamar attractive and wants to have sex with her – he just doesn’t want to father children by her. He therefore selfishly does his best to ensure that he doesn’t impregnate Tamar.

So God kills him too.

What is Judah’s response? Again, there is no mention of his mourning for Onan.

Er still does not have an heir. By tradition, Judah should have offered his third son Shelah to Tamar when he became old enough. But Judah now takes on the worst characteristics of his father Jacob, choosing to become a deceiver:

11 Then Judah said to Tamar his daughter-in-law, "Remain a widow in your father's house, till Shelah my son grows up"- for he feared that he would die, like his brothers.

Do you understand? Judah had no intention of ever giving Shelah to her. He is superstitious, fearing that Tamar was somehow has a curse on her, and any man who sleeps with her will die. He fails to acknowledge that his sons have died not because of Tamar but because of their own wickedness – the wickedness that his own failure as a father has brought about. Tamar is not responsible for his sons’ deaths; the responsibility lies with them and with Judah.

Furthremore, sending her back to her father’s house is wrong. In this culture, she is part of his family now, and he is responsible for her. Technically, she is engaged to Shelah. But Judah would like to be rid of this supposedly cursed woman, so he sends her home. Probably he hopes that she will fall for another Canaanite man and then he will be able to release her and be done with her.

In course of time the wife of Judah, Shua's daughter, died. When Judah was comforted, he went up to Timnah to his sheepshearers, he and his friend Hirah the Adullamite. 13 And when Tamar was told, "Your father-in-law is going up to Timnah to shear his sheep," 14 she took off her widow's garments and covered herself with a veil, wrapping herself up, and sat at the entrance to Enaim, which is on the road to Timnah. For she saw that Shelah was grown up, and she had not been given to him in marriage. Genesis 38:12-14

Time passes. Tamar sees that Judah will NOT give Shelah to her. What are her options?

She could forget about Er and do what her father-in-law wants: marry another Canaanite. But she is intent upon raising up a son for her husband. Somehow,  she sees what Judah and Onan have been blind to: the importance of the heirs of Abraham producing children. Perhaps the stories of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, and Jacob have stirred her. They were not only interesting family history to her, but promises that God is sure to fulfill. Perhaps she thought, “God will bless all nations through the offspring of Abraham – and Er is Ab’s great great grandson! – perhaps God will fulfill that promise and bless all the nations through my descendants! I must have a child in this line!”

Judah, Onan, and presumably Er despise their birthright; Tamar cherishes her husband’s birthright, and does whatever she can to see that the family line continues.

These are good motives. She sees and acts on truths that her father-in-law ignores.

How can she bring this about? She should have appealed to Judah on these grounds, telling him the time has come to give Shelah to her. And perhaps she did. But when it becomes clear that Judah has no intention of ever giving Shelah to her, she thinks of another way to accomplish the same purpose:

·        She knows Judah’s character – how he is immersed in Canaanite culture;

·        She knows that like most Canaanite men he has no sexual restraint;

·        She knows furthermore that his wife is now dead;

·        So she is confident that he will fall for the allure of a prostitute.

Thus, Tamar concludes that she can raise up children for Er and great great great grandchildren for Abraham by posing as a prostitute and tempting Judah to have sex with her.  

Will Judah give in?

15 When Judah saw her, he thought she was a prostitute, for she had covered her face. 16 He turned to her at the roadside and said, "Come, let me come in to you," for he did not know that she was his daughter-in-law. She said, "What will you give me, that you may come in to me?" 17 He answered, "I will send you a young goat from the flock." And she said, "If you give me a pledge, until you send it-" 18 He said, "What pledge shall I give you?" She replied, "Your signet and your cord and your staff that is in your hand." So he gave them to her and went in to her, and she conceived by him. Genesis 38:15-18

Judah does give in. The only problem is that Judah had not planned on such an encounter, so he has no payment with him – remember, there are no coins at this time, and paper money won’t invented until 3000 years in the future. Payment will be in the form of a promised goat. She says she doesn’t bestow favors on credit without collateral. So she asks for some personal items that clearly identify him. He gives them to her, they have sex, and she conceives - as she had hoped.

Judah tries to fulfill his bargain by sending the goat back, but his Canaanite friend Hirah can’t find the prostitute, and the men around there say no prostitute has been at that place. So he just figures the woman has disappeared and forgets about it.

But the inevitable signs of conception begin to show:

24 About three months later Judah was told, "Tamar your daughter-in-law has been immoral. Moreover, she is pregnant by immorality." And Judah said, "Bring her out, and let her be burned."

In this culture, Judah as her father-in-law is still responsible for her, even though he has done nothing to take care of her for several years. Technically she is engaged to be married to Shelah, and thus her immorality is a crime against Judah’s family. But Tamar has a trump card:

25 As she was being brought out, she sent word to her father-in-law, "By the man to whom these belong, I am pregnant." And she said, "Please identify whose these are, the signet and the cord and the staff."

Tamar confronts Judah with his own articles of clothing. In the next chapter, Potiphar’s wife will falsely accuse Joseph based on her possession of his personal articles. Here, Tamar truthfully accuses Judah of being the father of her children on the basis of her possession of his personal articles.

Centuries later, King David, a descendant of Judah and Tamar, will be confronted with his own gross sinfulness by the prophet Nathan. David responds with the deep prayer of repentance found in Psalm 51. How will Judah respond?

·        He could accuse Tamar of prostitution;

·        He could say, “How do I know I’m the father? You may have been playing the prostitute for months! You could have been with any number of men!”

This is a key point in the life of Judah – as it was with David: Confronted with his own sin, what will he do?

 26 Then Judah identified them and said, "She is more righteous than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah." And he did not know her again.

Judah’s first words can be translated, “She is righteous, not I.” Judah thus admits that he was wrong in withholding Shelah from her; he admits that her desire to have children for Er is right; he accepts her children as his heirs.

Judah hits rock bottom when he has sex with a supposed prostitute who in reality is his daughter-in-law. Here, he begins to repent and return to God.

The chapter doesn’t end here, however. The birth of the children reminds us of the birth of the twins Esau and Jacob – indicating this is a special birth.

27 When the time of her labor came, there were twins in her womb. 28 And when she was in labor, one put out a hand, and the midwife took and tied a scarlet thread on his hand, saying, "This one came out first." 29 But as he drew back his hand, behold, his brother came out. And she said, "What a breach you have made for yourself!" Therefore his name was called Perez. 30 Afterward his brother came out with the scarlet thread on his hand, and his name was called Zerah. Genesis 38:27-30

The first words in the New Testament are these:

The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. 2 Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers,  3 and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron. Matthew 1:1-3

Tamar’s decision to ensure that Er has descendants leads to the birth of Perez, the ancestor of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Consider Judah. What can we say about him? Judah:

·        fails as a son;

·        fails as a brother;

·        fails as a father; and  

·        fails as a father-in-law. Judah

·        rejects Jacob;

·        rejects God; and  

·        rejects his birthright, becoming like one of the Canaanites.

Judah has done what the Shechemites wanted Jacob and his family to do; he has intermarried with the Canaanites, becoming one people with them.

The Psalmist says, “I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness” (Psalm 84:10).

Not Judah.

As the author of Hebrews tells us, Abraham and Isaac acknowledged they were strangers, aliens, exiles, foreigners, and were content to live in tents apart from Canaanite culture.

Not Judah.

Judah is lost. But through Tamar, God begins to change him.

In the World And NOT Of the world

What lessons can we draw from this story to help us live as Jesus instructs us: in the world but not of the world?

Three questions to consider: First,

Do you recognize where your citizenship lies?

As we saw in Jesus’ prayer, we are sent into the world (John 17:18) but this world is not our home. As we read, Hebrews and 1 Peter refer to us as strangers, foreigners, aliens. As foreigners, out citizenship is NOT in any earthly country.

·        We are NOT primarily Americans or Canadians or Kenyans or Pakistanis;

·        We are citizens of the Kingdom of God, and fellow citizens, brothers and sisters, of all those who believe in Jesus as Savior and Lord.

As Paul says:

12 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.  13 For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body- Jews or Greeks, slaves or free- and all were made to drink of one Spirit. 1 Corinthians 12:12-13  

This is what Tamar saw and Judah failed to see: She was part of the Kingdom of God, not her Canaanite culture. Judah was chosen by God to be in the world but not of the world. Yet he chose to live as if he were of the world for many years.

How do we live in the world but not of the world? I’ll write more on this – particularly as it relates to the upcoming election - in this week’s email devotion. But for now note three principles:

First, we love our neighbors.

Jesus says that the second greatest commandment is that we are to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. And when asked, “Who is my neighbor?”, Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan – implying that whoever we encounter in need is our neighbor (Luke 10).

Loving our neighbor includes being a loving witness to the grace of God in our lives. We must show others that God Himself through Jesus Christ is the source of the greatest joy imaginable. We thus become salt and light among those with whom we live.

Second, we work for the good of the country where we live.  

King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon took thousands of Jews into exile around 600BC. Later, the prophet Jeremiah wrote a letter to these exiles, containing a message to them from God. That letter includes this injunction:

But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. Jeremiah 29:7

The Jewish exiles were to work for the good of this city – even though its rulers had harmed them. They were foreigners; they were literally exiles – but God tells them to work for this city during their exile. They were not to become Babylonians – they were to remember that they were distinct, as Daniel exemplifies, but they were to work hard to advance the welfare of the country where they found themselves.

Just so with us. If we belong to Jesus, the country of our birth is not our native country. We are exiles here. But we are to work for the good of the country where we find ourselves – even as we remember that we are distinct, that this world is not our home. And in a democracy, surely working for the good of the country includes being involved in the political process.

Thirdly, we must always remember our true citizenship.

Our relationship to God is much more important than our relationship to our native country. Our unity with believers around the world is closer than our unity with fellow citizens. We should care first and foremost to advance the of Kingdom of God, not to advance the position of our native country. Indeed, we should care even more about the welfare of brothers and sisters in Christ in Uganda than we care about the welfare of other American citizens.

So the first question is: Do you recognize where your citizenship lies?

The second question:

Are you guarding yourself and your family members from the temptations to become “of the world”?

Jacob and Judah did not.

The point is not to isolate ourselves in caves. But as the story of Judah shows, the prevailing culture is dangerous. All of us at all ages, but especially children, easily take on the values and customs of the society around us. We must guard ourselves, admitting the temptations we face and asking others to hold us accountable in order to keep those influences out of our lives. We must fight the fight to believe that our greatest joy is found in God, not in becoming a success according to our culture. As Peter tells us,

Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. 1 Peter 2:11

Our desires wage ware against our souls. And what happens to soldiers when a war is lost? Many are killed. These desires will kill us if we don’t kill them, if  we don’t fight the fight to find joy in God

So fight! Be in the Word! Be accountable to others! If Judah – the great grandson of Abraham, the son of Israel – could fail, so could you.

The final question:

Are you fulfilling the purpose for which God sent you into the world?

Remember John 17:18. Jesus says, “As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world.”

We are sent just as Jesus was sent.

·        You are NOT here to become like the culture around you.

·        You are NOT here to spend your life isolated in a cave (though periods of isolation from the culture can be very profitable).

·        You ARE SENT into the world to be God’s agent of change.

How are you doing?

For decades Judah failed in this regard.What about you?

If you believe in Jesus as Savior and Lord, if you, like Joe in the opening story, have seen Jesus has precious beyond all else, then God has chosen you to spread a passion for His supremacy in all things for the joy of all peoples.

Will you live in a way consistent with that calling?

Will you be in the world but not of the world?

Will you play your role in filling the earth with the knowledge of the glory of God as the waters cover the sea?


This sermon was preached at Desiring God Community Church in Charlotte, NC on 10/10/04. Commentaries by Bruce Waltke (Genesis: A Commentary, Zondervan, 2001), and James Montgomery Boice (Genesis: An Expositional Commentary: Volume 2, Genesis 12-36, Baker, 1985, 1998) were helpful in the preparation of this sermon, particularly Waltke this week. He is the source of the translation offered for verse 26, “She is righteous, not I.”

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