As far as I can tell, there are only two instances in Scripture of Shunammites included in God’s story of redemption. They are both of women from the area of Shunem, a territory allotted to Issachar in Joshua 19:18. Years apart, these two women are both used: one to fulfill a plan of man’s design to failure and disgrace, another to fulfill God’s plan to victory and honor.
The first instance comes at the end of David’s life in 1 Kings 1. God had made a promise to king David through Nathan the prophet that He would raise up one of his sons and establish his kingdom forever (2 Sam. 7:12-13). As David grew older, the question became how was God going to fulfill that promise with both Adonijah and Solomon living? Adonijah, the fourth and oldest surviving son of David, took matters into his own hands and set himself up as king. This account (1 Kgs. 1:5-10) comes immediately after David’s servants tried to solve the issue their way:
Now King David was old and advanced in years. And although they covered him with clothes, he could not get warm. Therefore his servants said to him, "Let a young woman be sought for my lord the king, and let her wait on the king and be in his service. Let her lie in your arms, that my lord the king may be warm." So they sought for a beautiful young woman throughout all the territory of Israel, and found Abishag the Shunammite, and brought her to the king. The young woman was very beautiful, and she was of service to the king and attended to him, but the king knew her not. (1 Kings 1:1-4)
Imagine being the most beautiful woman in “all the territory of Israel”! Abishag must have possessed incredible outward beauty for David’s servants to have chosen her. But the purpose Abishag was to serve was demeaning. She would be little more than a blanket and a bedfellow for the king. The Hebrew expression “wait” appears in Lev. 18:23 as “give herself,” which tells us their intention was for Abishag to make herself available sexually to David. Another phrase, “lie in your arms,” has sexual undertones (Gen. 16:5; 2 Sam. 12:8; Mic. 7:5). This may have been a calculated move to solve the problem of the crown by producing another heir to the throne.
Abishag was used as a pawn to entice David and reproduce. But the king’s impotence (“the King knew her not”) was perhaps what sparked Adonijah’s rebellion in the following verses. There is nothing in the text that suggests Abishag had any choice in the matter. She was simply removed from her village and expected to do the bidding of others. She was a functioning cog in the machinations of men that resulted in failure and to her shame.
Furthermore, after Adonijah’s rebellion is quelled and Solomon establishes his reign, Adonijah asks Bathsheba to “give me Abishag the Shunammite as my wife” (1 Kgs. 1:13-18) as a kind of consolation prize. This impertinent request cost Adonijah his life (1:19-25). Poor Abishag, being blessed (cursed?) with physical beauty by God, was only viewed as a possession by others. Her story is not concluded and we are left to wonder what happens to her.
The only other occurrence of a woman from Shunem in Scripture is much more refreshing. It comes years later during the tenure of Elisha the prophet in 2 Kings 4. She was a “wealthy woman” (2 Kgs. 4:8) with a beautiful spirit. She isn’t given a name like Abishag, nor is her physical appearance described. We are left to remember her only for her hospitality and her faith (cf. 1 Pet. 3:3-4).
She noticed Elisha traveling through Shunem so she invited him in to eat (2 Kgs. 4:8). She recognized him as a “holy man of God” and consulted with her husband to make an apartment for Elisha to stay on a semi-permanent basis (4:9-10). Receiving such loving hospitality, Elisha wanted to thank this woman in a special way. He asked her if there was anything he could do for her (4:12-13) but she seemed to need no gift of thanks.
Elisha, in loving consideration of this woman, found out that she had “no son and her husband is old,” and so he called her in to tell the news that “about this time next year, you shall embrace a son.” Stunned, she thought the prophet was playing some sick joke but, sure as God’s word, “the woman conceived, and she bore a son about that time the following spring, as Elisha had said to her.” (2 Kgs. 4:12-17)
Years passed and the child had grown. He was helping his father in the fields when he felt a pain in his head. Not long after, the boy tragically died in his mother’s arms. It seemed to her like Elisha’s gift had turned out to really be a cruel joke after all. She took hold the prophet’s leg and cried out to him. Through a lengthy process, a failed attempt on the part of Gehazi, Elisha’s servant, and much prayer, Elisha, in a vivid picture, resurrected the child in an extraordinary way (2 Kgs. 4:32-37).
Unlike Abishag’s story, the wealthy Shunammite’s story of Elisha’s day ends with satisfactory closure. Two women from the same area years apart. One’s story is an illustration of man’s twisted plans and how one girl, cursed by her beauty, was caught in the middle and suffered for it innocently. The other’s story is an illustration of how God can use a woman through love, hospitality and working faith for His glory. Abishag was used as man’s instrument in an unrighteous way. The wealthy Shunammite of Elisha’s day was truly God’s “instrument of righteousness” (Rom. 6:13).
The word “church” is used to refer to God’s covenant people in two different ways. It is used in the aggregate or universal sense when it refers to all followers of God by faith in His Son Jesus. It is described as a body in which Christ is the head (Eph. 1:22-23; 4:15; Col. 1:18) and those who are faithful to Him comprise the body (1 Cor. 12:12).
One becomes a “member” of that body when one, “by one Spirit,” is “baptized into one body” (1 Cor. 12:13). Thus immersion “into Christ” (Rom. 6:4; Gal. 3:27) makes one a member of His body in the aggregate sense. This rescue from darkness and transfer to light (Col. 1:12-14) is ultimately accomplished by the work of God (cf. Acts 2:41, 47; 5:14) yet this does not negate individual responsibility (Acts 2:40). If the relationship between the Christian (member) and Christ (head) is severed then that individual is no longer a member of that body (Rom. 11:17-23; Rev. 2:4-5).
But the word “church” is also used to describe a group of believers working together as a team. They function as a unit having “saints,” “overseers and deacons” (Phil. 1:1). Because this “church” acts as a unit, she can listen and speak (Mt. 18:17), send letters and gifts (1 Cor. 16:3), choose and send messengers (2 Cor. 8:19), and discipline as a unit (1 Cor. 5:5), etc.
But how is one added to or taken away from this kind of local “church”? Ideally, this local body is comprised of the same kind of members as the universal body. Ideally, one’s membership in a local body is dependent upon one’s faithfulness and fellowship with Christ. But the local church comes short of this ideal. Why? Because the local church is made up of fallible people. Therefore, local church membership rests upon the best (but admittedly fallible) human judgment. Christians must do their best to use the principles that God has revealed in His word to determine local church membership. There have been mistakes in the past and, so long as the human element remains in the church, there will be mistakes in the future.
First of all, we can be too inclusive with our fellowship when we accept those as members who are not living lives of faith in Jesus. For example, the Corinthian church maintained fellowship (partnership, accepted as a “member”) with one who was unfaithful to the Lord (1 Cor. 5:1ff). The apostle Paul rebuked the Corinthian local church for this acceptance and instructed them to remove the unfaithful one from their midst (1 Cor. 5:2).
On the other hand, we can be too exclusive when we exclude those who truly belong to the Lord. The apostle John wrote to a group of Christians cautioning them about a man named Diotrephes who, among other things, did “not receive the brethren” and “forbids those who desire to do so and puts them out of the church” (3 Jn. 1:10). This other extreme was not acceptable. John describes the rejected ones as “brethren,” that is, part of God’s family, yet they were being cast out of the church. The same kind of situation was happening in Jerusalem with the apostle Paul. Paul had already been joined with Jesus in baptism (Acts 22:16) and, thus became a member of the universal church. But his attempt to join himself with the local church in Jerusalem was rebuffed by the brethren until Barnabas convinced them he was truly a disciple of Christ (Acts 9:26-28).
Clearly, membership in a local church rests on fallible human judgment. The same kind of errors in judgment that existed in Corinth, Jerusalem and the group that John addressed exist today in local churches. We must pray for wisdom, study God’s word, and do our best to implement the principles God has revealed.
One last thought. Timothy had to deal with a few contentious and ungodly people at Ephesus (2 Tim. 2:16-18). But Paul comforted him with this truth, “Nevertheless, the firm foundation of God stands, having this seal, “The Lord knows who are His”...” (2 Tim. 2:19a). Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd, and I know My own and my own know Me” (Jn. 10:14). Let us know the Lord and do our very best to follow Him together (Eph. 4:15-16).
Just before the heart of his letter (2:14-26), James blends the dual themes of wisdom and working faith in outlining the sin of partiality (2:1-13). James describes what it means to be “partial” in 2:1: “My brethren, do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism.”
At the outset, he draws the reader’s attention to “our,” a possessive word, meaning Jesus is ours because He has given Himself to us and for us and we have accepted him as our, “glorious Lord.” Describing Jesus as “Lord” (or master) would highlight our need to emulate and obey Him (Heb. 5:8-9) while describing Him as “glorious” would remind us that Jesus defeated death and is reigning as King Most High. How can we “hold” our “faith” in such a “glorious Lord” while treating people with personal favoritism when our “glorious Lord” never did?
Another theme that James revisits several times in his letter is the disparity between the rich and poor and how, generally speaking, the rich hold the poor in contempt (1:9-11; 5:1-6). Here (2:1-13) James puts forth a hypothetical situation (“if” 2:2) wherein the believer has the perfect opportunity to exercise his wisdom and faith. Not only is it against wisdom to play favorites in the brotherhood but this kind of discrimination is also against God’s law, thereby violating faith in Jesus. There are three ways in which James gives his reproof against the sin of partiality.
Preferring the wealthy over the poor shows a complete disregard for Jesus (2:1-7). James calls those who make such distinctions “judges with evil motives” (2:4). In fact, it was the rich who usually oppressed poor believers (5:1-7), dragging them to court and even blaspheming the name of Jesus (2:6-7). To favor a wealthy man over a poor man for whatever reason not only dishonors “the fair name by which you were called” (2:7) but also dishonors “the poor man” whom God chose to be “rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom” (2:5). Jesus came to make the poor rich (2 Cor. 8:9), not financially but spiritually, and those who wear the name of Jesus ought to have that same attitude of self-sacrifice for the benefit of the less fortunate (2 Cor. 6:10).
Preferring the wealthy over the poor shows a complete disregard for the Law (2:8-11). Who said Christians are not under Law? We certainly are! Part of being citizens in a kingdom necessitates that there be a law. Christ, who sits at the right hand of God, is King making the words that issue from His throne a “royal law” (2:8). If we are to be a “royal priesthood” (1 Pet. 2:9) then we must abide by our King’s “royal law” which is, summed up, “you shall love you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Loving others unconditionally as God has loved us is a theme repeatedly emphasized by Jesus (Mt. 22:34-40; Jn. 13:34-35) and his disciples after Him (Rom. 13:8-10). Partiality is the polar opposite of our King’s command to love. So people who play favorites in the kingdom violate the very foundation of the law of the Kingdom and, in effect, “has become guilty of all” that the Law teaches (2:10).
Preferring the wealthy over the poor shows a complete disregard for the Judgment (2:12-13). Lastly, James warns his audience to “so speak and so act,” that is, love in word and deed (1 Jn. 3:18), “as those who are judged by the law of liberty” (2:12). The law that Christ delivered was unlike the Mosaic Law in that Christ’s law actually liberates men from their sins instead of enslaving them in their sins (Rom. 8:1-2ff). Yet we need to be careful how we use that freedom. Paul warns the Galatians not to “turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh” in the very context of loving one another (Gal. 5:13-14). We need to live by this law of liberty and of love because, in the end, we will be judged by it (2:13; Lk. 6:37-38). Our mercy for one another (2:13), or lack of it, will be returned to us in the judgment (Mt. 5:7; 6:14-15; 25:34-40), which is why God said long ago, “I desire mercy not sacrifice” (Hos. 6:6; Mt. 9:13; 12:7).
Brethren, let us live to honor our “glorious Lord Jesus” (2:1-7), respect His “royal law of love” (2:8-11) and live in view of the eternal judgment (2:12-13). There may be a brother or a sister in the assembly that, for whatever reason, you don’t necessarily get along with. Remember the command to love him or her still stands and your salvation is in the balance. Time and time again, the Scriptures explicitly point out that God does not give special treatment to one individual over another. Peter once stated, “...God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right is welcome to Him” (Acts 10:34; cf. Jn. 9:31). “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 Jn. 4:11).
In our study of the Book of Judges we noted the author’s mention of Ehud being “a left-handed man” (Jdg. 3:15) and the possible significance of the inclusion of this odd bit of information. Ehud’s dexterity (and possible ambidexterity) played an important role in Israel’s deliverance from Moab and her oppressive king Eglon. It is difficult for us living in a relatively peaceful society today to fully appreciate the weight of importance of a handshake in the ancient world. In those tumultuous times and violent cultures men would regularly carry a weapon on their person. Shaking hands with someone meant that you weren’t going to draw your sword. It was a sign of peace.
So far as history and archeology can tell most people were (and still are) right handed. This meant it was the right hand that was customarily offered during a handshake. Historically, left handed men were distrusted because even while shaking hands they were fully capable of drawing their sword to deadly effect. Hence, the reader of Judges may suspect some treachery is afoot in the Ehud/Moab narrative just from the introduction (Jdg. 3:15).
It is interesting to me that we still greet one another by touch. On multiple occasions Christians are commanded to “greet one another with a holy kiss” (Rom. 16:16; 1 Cor. 16:20; 2 Cor. 13:12; 1 Thess. 5:26). Peter calls it a “kiss of love” (1 Pet. 5:14). The operative terms being “holy” and “love.” There is no sexual connotation behind this kind of greeting. When I kiss sister Velva on the cheek it is an expression of brotherly love and affection; Rachael understands this and is not offended by it. These greetings, whether they be through shaking or holding hands, a tender pat on the back, or even a kiss, communicate what words sometimes fail to.
On one occasion when Paul, Barnabas, and Titus traveled to Jerusalem they were met with such a greeting by Peter, James, and John. They recognized that Paul had a special ministry to the Gentiles just as Peter did the Jews and offered them “the right hand of fellowship” (Gal. 2:9). This was an expression of their favor and support, unity in purpose, mutual sharing of labor, a blessing. The apostles were effectively saying, “We are with you in this brother!”
For various reasons, some people may feel uncomfortable with this kind of greeting. We need to be sensitive to that and respect their physical boundaries. Also there may be situations where this kind of greeting is out of place. I remember a time of strife in my family. It was during Christmas and my step-grandmother was in the process of unjustly suing my parents! We drove to their house on Christmas Eve because “that’s what we’re supposed to do,” said dad. When my grandfather’s wife was giving a round of awkward hugs to the family she finally reached for my mother who, in a rare show of boldness, rejected her show of ‘affection’ and said, “I’m not feeling so warm and fuzzy right now.” Talk about the Christmas spirit! The image was indelibly etched on my mind. When there is disharmony in the family these touches feel forced, a shallow attempt to convey feelings that aren’t really there.
This is why it is so important to be unified and truly loving one another. If not, these greetings come off as cold, calculated, and feigned displays of affection. But if we are treating each other as God instructs us then warm greetings are appropriate. It is good for us to express our love and fellowship with one another in various ways. Greeting each other warmly with a holy touch is a great way to do that. Even though our method of greeting one another may change over time and vary with culture we always employ some kind of holy touch. Some things never change. Thanks be to God who touches us with His grace through Jesus Christ.
Imagine you are out sailing with the people that mean the most to you. They are your family, the ones you cannot do without. Some days, the sailing is blissful and beautiful; not a cloud in the sky and a gentle breeze blows while voyaging unhindered through glassy seas. Other days are more challenging; the seas rough, your vessel sustains damage, but through it all, you work together to make it out of the storm to live another day. And by weathering those storms together the bonds of trust between each member grow stronger.
As Christians we are navigating the seas of life together as Christ intended. Our Captain is Jesus and we prove to be His crewmen by our love and care for one another (Jn. 13:34). The vessel by which we sail is the ship of faith in Christ Jesus and our sole determination is to arrive safely at our destination. Of course, our secure passage to safe haven is only guaranteed if we heed the commands of our beloved Captain who has never steered us wrong, who has proven Himself over and over to be faithful and true.
Now imagine in the middle of one of these storms one of the crew members falls into the sea. What would you do? What would the Captain command? Surely, He would waste no time in ordering the ship to come about and telling others to cast a line out to the man overboard. Every extra hand would be gripping the line, heaving in unison to rescue “some poor fainting, struggling seaman” out of the mouth of the sea. This is a reality in our voyage of Christianity. How we respond in such times of spiritual emergency separates the true disciples from the poseurs.
Jude speaks to the urgency of saving our brethren who have fallen prey to the world by likening this rescue to snatching him out of an intense fire that burns him alive (Jd. 1:22-23). Paul speaks about this same thing in terms of restoration (Gal. 6:1), that is, to work in gentleness to bring back our brother to a previous state of spiritual enjoyment. The Hebrew writer speaks in medical terms, strengthening and correcting the weak and disjointed members of the body (Heb. 12:12-13). James, drawing upon the parable of the lost sheep, instructs us to turn the wandering soul back on the way which leads to eternal life (Jas. 5:19-20).
Over the past few years we have lost several members to the world. As crewmen aboard this ship of faith have we cast out our lines to those who slipped back into the sea of sin? Are we following Jesus in leaving the ninety nine sheep in safety while going after the one who is straying? Or have we sailed on and written them off as lost? If we fail in exerting ourselves to “rescue the perishing” and “care for the dying” how can we expect to stand justified before the Judge? Nay, in failing to prove our love for our brother with a diligent search and rescue operation we will have stepped out of the boundary of His grace. Not only, as the song says, does “duty demand it,” but our love for God demands it (1 Jn. 4:20).
Jesus came to seek and save the lost and the church’s mission is a continuation of the work of her Savior. This is applied, and rightly so, to those who have never tasted and seen that the Lord is good. But what about those who have? Our rescue mission is never more urgent than when a brother or sister in Christ has gone overboard to float aimlessly in the sea of sorrow.
Better yet, let’s not wait until our brother falls into that sea to cast our cords of love to him. The Hebrew writer speaks to all who would wear the name of Jesus when he wrote, “Take care, brethren, that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God. But encourage one another day after day, as long as it is called “Today,” so that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Heb. 3:12-13). Guess what day “Today” is?