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Archive for the tag “Harvest”

Acts, Part 1

oreo_Cookie_One of America’s favorite cookies is the Oreo, two chocolate wafers with a creamy frosting in between. But when asked what makes the Oreo so popular, invariably, it is not the wafers. It is the frosting in between. Nabisco understands this, so in the past decade or so they introduced a “double stuffed” Oreo. They know it’s what’s in between that makes an Oreo an Oreo! If you will give me some grace to make an analogy, the accomplishment of Jesus, the King, might be compared to an Oreo cookie. His first coming, that which inaugurated the Kingdom of God and his second coming, that which will complete the establishment of the Kingdom of God on the New Heaven and New Earth, have an in between. This in between is the mission of the Spirit of God through the people of God, the Church, which is to spread the message of the Gospel among all peoples on earth. The story of this in between begins in the Book of Acts.

Acts is the second volume of the history of Jesus and his disciples written by Luke to a man named Theophilus, an acquaintance of Luke who was either interested in the story to fulfill his own curiosity or to preserve it for future generations. It could be that Theopholis was a prominent figure in Roman society, given that he is addressed as “most excellent” (Luke 1:3), a common designation for influential leaders (see Acts 23:26; 24;3; 26:25). Perhaps Theophilus commissioned Luke to write, or Luke wrote to Theopholus in order to present evidence of the power of the Gospel in an effort to convert him. At any rate, the reference to this man brings added evidence that the author of Acts is the same author as that of the Gospel of Luke.

Acts is organized to chronicle the progress of the Gospel in four phases, as outlined in Acts 1:8.

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Act 1:8 NIV)

Chapters 1-8 tell the story of the Gospel’s growth in Jerusalem. Then in Chapters 8:5-12:25, we see it spread to Samaria and Judea And in chapters 13-21, it spreads from Judea to the outermost parts of the earth. The last chapters account for the final days of the Apostle Paul, with a rather abrupt ending, probably signifying that the chronological account of the story has been recorded up to that time, with Luke anticipating continuing it, but never having the opportunity to do so.

As the book of Acts begins, Luke records that the risen Jesus appears to his followers many times over a period of 40 days, “speaking about the kingdom of God” (1:3). When they came together for the final time in his presence, they asked him if this was the time when the KOG would be established on earth. But to what must have been their disappointment, Jesus instead commissioned them to spread the Gospel throughout the world, and then the end would come. Dramatically, Jesus is taken up from them. But where did he go?  Later, Peter tells us (2:33; 5:31) that Jesus is now exalted at the right hand of the Father. Instead of a throne located in Jerusalem from where the Messiah was assumed to rule a world-wide earthly empire, Jesus sits at the right hand of God, on a throne that is exalted above the world, a place of highest authority and honor. Now Jesus truly is “Lord”, and his early disciples, as well as those of all ages, bow before him and confess that he is King of kings and Lord of lords. The mission of his followers is to proclaim his status and spread his message. But they would not be alone in that quest. They would receive power when the Holy Spirit came upon them. Prophecy promised that God’s Spirit would be poured out on the Messiah (Is 42:1) and on his people (Joel 2:28-32). About ten days after the ascension, during the Jewish festival of Pentecost, God’s word was fulfilled. In a mighty display of God’s power, the Holy Spirit comes upon the followers of Jesus and empowers them to accomplish their mission. Jewish literature from the 2nd Century BC reminds us that the Jewish festival of Pentecost lost its harvest significance. “Instead, it celebrated the promise God had given to Abraham, that his descendants might become an elect people…and an inheritance from all of the nations of the earth from henceforth and for all the days of the generations of the earth forever. Thus, in Jesus day, the Feast of Pentecost celebrated the covenant renewal of Israel and the inclusion of the nations within the covenant made between God and Abraham. Now, at that Feast of Pentecost the Spirit comes in fulfillment of that expectation and hope.” (Bartholomew and Cohen, The Drama of Scripture.) People from many parts of the Roman Empire heard the Gospel in their own language, making the message of the Kingdom of God available to a variety of people, both Jew and Gentile. God’s rule begins to work outward from Jerusalem to the nations, just as God said it would.

Next time, I will deal with this marvelous event in more detail and continue to discuss the progress of the Gospel to the nations.

Life & Ministry of Jesus, Part 4

passovertableThe story of God’s mission to restore the Kingdom of God, which was established in the Garden of Eden but polluted and broken with the sin of Adam and Eve, continues to unfold as Jesus progresses to the climax of his life and ministry. Upon his arrival in Jerusalem, Jesus intentionally presents himself as the King by giving new meaning to cherished Jewish expectation. First, he gives new meaning to the popular expectation that the Messiah would uproot the secular government, which at that time was Rome, and establish his own, with the Jews serving as princes. Instead, Jesus gives a new meaning to the arrival of the King by humbly entering Jerusalem, the city of the King, on a donkey. Then Jesus visits the Temple and cleanses it of inappropriate activity that separates the Jews from the rest of the world. He then gives new meaning to the idea of Temple by drawing attention away from the physical structure, where the central religious activity was observed, to his own body, the new Temple, which he said would be torn down but in three days be restored. His final act is to point to the cross, the climactic event of his life and ministry. He does this by giving a new meaning to the most cherished Jewish observance – Passover.

We will remember from our study of Exodus that this ritual meal was full of symbolism that reminded the Jews of their life of slavery in Egypt and of their miraculous escape from bondage there. It has been suggested (Bartholomew, The Drama of Scripture pg. 157) that for first century Jews, Passover also was a picture of a new exodus. Just as Moses delivered them from the oppression of Egypt, Messiah would deliver them from the oppression of Rome. “The coming kingdom of God, a new covenant, the forgiveness of sins, their return from exile – all these terms express Israel’s hope for what God will do at the climactic moment in their nation’s history.” But Jesus gives this meal a new meaning. The Kingdom they had been hoping for was about to become reality, but it would be in his death, not his physical conquest of pagan governments. During the meal Jesus explains in startling terms the new meaning of both the bread and the wine. Taken from the middle pouch of the linen napkin, bread that was striped and pierced became the symbol of his body (Mark 14:22). Although they did not realize it at the time, the striping symbolized the scourging and whipping at the hands of those who would arrest him, and the piercing pointed to the spear that was thrust in his side as he hung on the cross. There are two NT passages that unpack the significance of this new meaning of the bread.

“He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross… (1Pe 2:24 NIV)

Jesus actually took upon himself, on his body, the sins of the world and, by giving his body, he made the sufficient sacrifice to pay their penalty. But there is a second verse that gives further  significance to his death.

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.” (Gal 3:13 NIV)

At the moment when Jesus cried out, “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34), Jesus became what he wasn’t so we could become what we aren’t. He was considered in the eyes of God – cursed. And by becoming a curse for us, he took our place in order that the curse we deserve might be removed.

Later in the Passover celebration, after the meal was completed, Jesus took the “cup of redemption” and declared that the wine symbolized his blood, which he taught was the blood of the covenant (Mark 14:24). In his death, in the shedding of his blood, King Jesus establishes the new covenant. This concept deserves clarification, and it comes from the pen of Zechariah.

Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the warhorses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth. As for you, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will free your prisoners from the waterless pit.  (Zec 9:9-11 NIV)

By the term “the blood of the covenant”, the exile would end and God’s Kingdom would be established. Notice how Zechariah declares that this king would establish his rule from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth. This is not a regional rule – this is the rule of the Kingdom of God to all people over all the earth. This is the rule of the Gospel.  Jesus declares that this happens when his blood is shed on the cross.

This final expression of newness from Jesus establishes that the powerful work of God in reestablishing the Kingdom of God will take place after he enters Jerusalem on a donkey, after he proclaims peace to the nations by cleansing the court of the Gentiles. The Kingdom of God is established when he sheds the blood of the covenant, a phrase that refers to his death on the cross. In his death, Jesus inaugurates the Kingdom of God, an event to remember as often as we observe the new Passover, which we call The Lord’s Supper.

The Book of Proverbs, Part 1

peaceAs I was growing up in the 60’s (I guess I am dating myself), there was a tremendous movement in our culture for individuals to pursue fulfillment of their own (what I would call) selfish ambitions. The most famous (perhaps I should say infamous) movement was in the expression of personal sexuality. But that was not the only expression of self-centeredness. At the root of the rebellion and violence that swept the country was the belief that nobody could tell ME what or what not to do. As culture developed, culture watchers of the 80’s coined the phrase, “me-ism”. The trend spilled over into the church. Unfortunately, this was the time when the health and wealth approach to Christianity exploded which, in my opinion, began the shift away from biblical theology to sentimental and therapeutic preaching and teaching, which emphasizes what God can do for ME. Presently we are seeing a trend in church culture toward consumerism, whose mantra is, ”What can the church do for ME.” Sadly, many churches are enabling this tendency by implementing program after program, activity after activity, not only to attract new attendees but also to keep those they have from going somewhere else. I fear the result will be a total loss of focus on the LORD and tired and exhausted families as “spiritual” ambition becomes our idol.

I share these thoughts as an introduction to one book in the Bible that Mark Dever suggests is “a book of wisdom for those who want to fulfill their ambition.” (The Message of The Old Testament, pg 508). But there is a striking contrast between the self-centered ambition of our culture and the ambition to live a God-centered life, which is what Proverbs is all about. The theme of Proverbs is stated in Chapter 1 and then repeated in various ways throughout the book.

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction. (Pro 1:7 NIV)

My son, if you accept my words and store up my commands within you…then you will understand the fear of the LORD and find the knowledge of God. (Pro 2:1, 5 NIV

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding. (Pro 9:10 NIV)

The ambition of a follower of the LORD is to grow close to him and to walk in his wisdom. But for those who have no time for God, who despise his wisdom (See 1 Cor 1:18-31), there is only the pursuit of self to occupy their lives. How empty!

Let’s begin our study in Proverbs by discussing this wisdom, which I would suggest is simply “skill in the art of godly living.” Now this might seem like a contradiction – skill and art. But actually these two concepts fit together very well. Walking with God requires that we learn some basic disciplines, especially the disciplines involved in nurturing our relationship with our heavenly father who forms our character and nurtures our heart. Then we artfully live out our relationship with God in everyday life. From Proverbs 1:1-6, let’s look at some of these skills and how to artfully apply them.

The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel: for gaining wisdom and instruction; for understanding words of insight; for receiving instruction in prudent behavior, doing what is right and just and fair; for giving prudence to those who are simple, knowledge and discretion to the young–let the wise listen and add to their learning, and let the discerning get guidance–for understanding proverbs and parables, the sayings and riddles of the wise. (Pro 1:1-6 NIV)

First is the discipline of applying the biblical ethics of doing what is right, just and fair (Vs. 3). Second is discernment or understanding, which involves common sense and shrewdness (Vs. 4). Third is responding to the guidance that God gives us in his Word (Vs. 5). But who is able to learn this lifestyle of wisdom? Solomon says the simple (impressionable child), youth (teenager who is willing to study and learn from a mentor), or wise (mature believer who learns from life – see Prov 9:9; 3:11-12; 10:8) are all capable of growing in the art of godly living.

petranostowersBut the key to the art of godly living is the fear of the Lord. This is the foundation of wisdom, actually the beginning of wisdom. Let me give you an illustration of the importance of a deep foundation. Consider the PETRONAS towers in Kuala Lumpier, Malaysia. This complex is 1500 feet tall, which is 88 stories, built of 37 tons of steel and twice that amount of reinforced concrete. But the most important element of this engineering wonder is the foundation, which is 450 feet deep – 25% of its height. Here is the application to the readers of Proverbs. Unless there is a deep foundation in the fear of the Lord, skill in the art of godly living will not be very skillful nor will it be very artful. In my next post I will outline in more detail this concept of the fear of the LORD.

The Book of Malachi

choices

A very concise phrase encapsulates the history of the Old Testament. I have used it earlier in this series but it is fitting that we end with it. “Choices are optional, consequences are not.” As we survey the book of Malachi, I think you will see why I want to remind us of this simple truth.

The final element of the Old Testament bible story is the book of Malachi. But it is important to set the context for this final book of prophecy. During the twelfth year of Nehemiah’s governorship in Jerusalem, he made a trip back to Persia (see Nehemiah 13:6-7). The length of his stay is not indicated, but after some time Artexerxes grants him permission to return to Jerusalem. What he finds is appalling. Religious discipline was all but lost. Foreign leaders were given residences in the Temple court. Support for Levites and Temple activities waned. The people neglected their daily offerings and their obligations of tithing. As a consequence, the people were not experiencing the blessings that the prophets promised upon their return to Jerusalem. Instead, there was economic hardship, prolonged drought and crop failure and pestilence, limited self-rule, and constant oppression from the neighboring nations. The people were disillusioned, frequently complaining to God about their hardships. But they were only experiencing the consequences of their own sinfulness. The prophecy of Malachi the prophet details the dialogue between the people and God in hopes that they will finally understand.

Malachi confronts the people of Israel in three areas. (I am grateful to Mark Dever in The Message of The Old Testament for this outline.) The first is how they were failing in the way they were treating one another. In 2:10-16 he reminded them that their first responsibility was to their families, specifically, to their marriages.

Has not the one God made you? You belong to him in body and spirit. And what does the one God seek? Godly offspring. So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful to the wife of your youth. “The man who hates and divorces his wife,” says the LORD, the God of Israel, “does violence to the one he should protect,” says the LORD Almighty. So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful. (Mal 2:15-16 NIV)

Then there is instruction that addressed their failure in how they were relating to their neighbors.

So I will come to put you on trial. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive the foreigners among you of justice, but do not fear me,” says the LORD Almighty. (Mal 3:5 NIV)

The second challenge from God concerned their worship. The people were going through the motions rather than giving of their best.

A son honors his father, and a slave his master. If I am a father, where is the honor due me? If I am a master, where is the respect due me?” says the LORD Almighty. “It is you priests who show contempt for my name. “But you ask, ‘How have we shown contempt for your name?’ “By offering defiled food on my altar. “But you ask, ‘How have we defiled you?'”By saying that the LORD’s table is contemptible. When you offer blind animals for sacrifice, is that not wrong? When you sacrifice lame or diseased animals, is that not wrong? Try offering them to your governor! Would he be pleased with you? Would he accept you?” says the LORD Almighty. (Mal 1:6-8 NIV)

In fact, God considered their neglect of the tithe as robbing him.

“Will a mere mortal rob God? Yet you rob me. “But you ask, ‘How are we robbing you?’ “In tithes and offerings. You are under a curse–your whole nation–because you are robbing me.” (Mal 3:8-9 NIV)

The third challenge from God concerned how they approached God. Apparently they were very cynical in addressing God with little fear of him.

You have spoken arrogantly against me,” says the LORD. “Yet you ask, ‘What have we said against you?’ “You have said, ‘It is futile to serve God. What do we gain by carrying out his requirements and going about like mourners before the LORD Almighty? But now we call the arrogant blessed. Certainly evildoers prosper, and even when they put God to the test, they get away with it.’” Then those who feared the LORD talked with each other, and the LORD listened and heard. A scroll of remembrance was written in his presence concerning those who feared the LORD and honored his name. (Mal 3:13-16 NIV)

A modern reader of Malachi, indeed of the entire Old Testament, might shake his/her head in amazement that the Jews were so slow to understand that consequences are not optional. But are we just as blind? How is your marriage? Do you treat others with justice? Do you give God the first and the best in your worship? Are you cynical as you observe the apparent ease of others? And do you fear the Lord in your heart? May God grant us the humility to look deep inside and bow before God at the wonder of his never-ceasing love for us. He will never cease saying to us:

“I have loved you,” says the LORD. (Mal 1:2 NIV)

But if you are not experiencing this love, perhaps you, like Malachi’s readers, are making choices that are reaping a consequence.

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Listen to my 2-part sermon series on stewardship, it might by helpful as you are reading Malachi.

The Book of Nehemiah

I think anyone who seriously contemplates the health of any nation realizes that there is an interwoven relationship between civics and morality. I am convinced, as was Edward Gibbon, the author of The Rise and Fall of The Roman Empire, that there can be effective physical infrastructure (roads, aqueducts, buildings, etc) but moral weakness will eventually bring the demise of any empire. I notice the very same environment in our country. America is arguably the strongest nation on earth when things such as military, communication, and technology are considered. But we are becoming weaker by the decade simply because our moral infrastructure is crumbling! Both are essential in order for a nation to prosper.

Nation building following the exile is another example, although in the case of the returning Jews, the situation is reversed. Under the capable leadership of Ezra, the spiritual condition of the residents of Israel was progressing in the right direction. But there was no physical and civil infrastructure. Enter Nehemiah. Under his leadership, the physical walls of Jerusalem were rebuilt and a basic civil culture was erected, a feat that might be compared to the establishment of civil and physical infrastructure in a modern nation. With this project accomplished, the story of the restoration of the Jews to Jerusalem is complete.

It may be helpful to review the chronology of the events during this period of the Bible story. Ezra Chapters 1-6 record the return of 50k Jews to Jerusalem and describe the re-construction of the Temple under the leadership of Zerubbabel, Haggai, and Zechariah. Little is known about life in Jerusalem for the next 58 years, but the story of Esther records that God continued to be faithful to his people in Persia. Eventually, Ezra the scribe leads a second group of returning Jews to Jerusalem and spiritual reformation continues as recorded in Ezra Chapters 7-10. But the walls of the city are in ruins and there is little protection for anyone living there, which leaves both the people and the practice of their religion vulnerable to outside interference and even attack. Thirteen years later, Nehemiah, the cup-bearer to King Artexerxes I, is moved by God to make the journey to Jerusalem. Under his leadership, the walls are re-constructed. The civil and spiritual restoration of the culture in Jerusalem is complete.

The book of Nehemiah opens with Nehemiah living in Susa, serving the king. Word came from Jerusalem that the walls of the city were in ruins. After three months of prayer and fasting, Nehemiah approached the king with a request to return to Jerusalem to repair them.

“If it pleases the king and if your servant has found favor in his sight, let him send me to the city in Judah where my ancestors are buried so that I can rebuild it.” Then the king, with the queen sitting beside him, asked me, “How long will your journey take, and when will you get back?” It pleased the king to send me; so I set a time. I also said to him, “If it pleases the king, may I have letters to the governors of Trans-Euphrates, so that they will provide me safe-conduct until I arrive in Judah? And may I have a letter to Asaph, keeper of the royal park, so he will give me timber to make beams for the gates of the citadel by the temple and for the city wall and for the residence I will occupy?” And because the gracious hand of my God was on me, the king granted my requests. (Neh 2:5-8 NIV)

Chapters 2:9-7:73 record the complicated and difficult process of building a culture where there is harmony between moral and civil interests. Nehemiah begins to address the civil needs by leading the effort to rebuild the wall around the city. In the face of opposition, mockery, and conspiracy from neighboring communities, Nehemiah organizes a workforce where half are put on military guard and the other half on construction duty. But outside opposition is not the only problem facing Nehemiah. The wealthier Jews abuse and oppress their own people by taking advantage of the opportunity to pad their pocketbooks at the expense of the workers, who cannot work because they are building the wall, by forcing them to mortgage their homes, and even sell their children into servanthood. Immediately Nehemiah addresses the moral issue by calling a public assembly and persuading the offenders to return the money they took and to cancel additional interest payments. Leading by example, he then refused to take his own salary as governor and invited 150 Jews and officials to be his table guests without charge. Both he and his servants gave sacrificially from their resources to help the needy in Jerusalem. In spite of all these difficulties, the wall was completed in 52 days and the surrounding nations were compelled to acknowledge that it was because of the good hand of the Lord that the task was accomplished.

When all our enemies heard about this, all the surrounding nations were afraid and lost their self-confidence, because they realized that this work had been done with the help of our God. (Neh 6:16 NIV)

So what makes a strong nation? Israel’s enemies felt superior until the wall was complete. But the wall would have never been completed had there not been decisive leadership that called the people to moral accountability. Both are needed to establish a strong nation and both are needed to preserve a strong nation. Are we listening, America?

Ezra, Part 2

800px-Second_TempleFifty-eight years have passed since the return of the first group of Jewish pilgrims to their homeland. The throne of Persia transferred from Xerxes to Artaxerxes, the latter being as favorably disposed to Jewish return to Jerusalem as was Cyrus, who initiated the migration of the Jews back to their homeland. A pious Levite named Ezra approached the king with a proposal that would empower him to lead a delegation to Jerusalem, a proposal that was enthusiastically endorsed by the king (note the official decree recorded in Ezra 7:11-26). Ezra readily acknowledged that these events were all made possible because “the good hand of his God was upon him” (7:9). The circumstances surrounding the dangerous 1000-mile trip and the events that transpired upon his arrival in Jerusalem are recorded in Ezra, chapters 7-10.

Samuel Shultz, The Old Testament Speaks (Pg 266)¸has given a helpful summary of the chronology of the events recorded in Ezra 7:1-10:44.

Nisan (first month)

1-3 – encampment by the river Ahava

4-11 – preparation for the journey

12 – beginning of the journey to Jerusalem

Ab (fifth month)

1st day of this month they arrive in Jerusalem

Kislev (ninth month)

Public assembly called in Jerusalem after Ezra is informed about mixed marriages

Tabeth (tenth month)

Beginning of examination of guilty parties and ending of the 1st day of Nisan

Upon his arrival, Ezra joyfully entrusts the provision for the Temple to those already leading the Temple activities (8:24-30) along with the distribution of the royal edict that empowers the community to reinforce Temple worship. All is well until the opening scene of chapter 9, when Ezra discovers a serious breach of the Law of Moses that threatens the very existence of the Jewish community. The Jewish people have intermarried with foreigners. One need only to reflect back to the beginning of the problems of Israel to understand how abhorrent this practice was. When Solomon married foreign wives, they turned his heart away from God and he began to worship false gods and practice idolatry. God’s people had just survived a 70-year exile as discipline for rampant idolatry. Now, the reorganized community, fragile as it was, dared to tread these waters again!! Ezra was appalled and he called the community to prayer and fasting. An examination of the people revealed a list of priests, Levites, and laity, totaling 114, was guilty of intermarriage.  Among the eighteen guilty priests were close relatives of Joshua, the high priest, who had returned with Zerubabbel 50 years earlier.  In fact, a comparison of Ezra 10:18-22 with Ezra 2:36-39 revealed that none of the orders of returning priests were free of intermarriage.  Ezra reacted with such self-castigation and confession, that included himself as being among the transgressors, that his behavior became contagious throughout the community.

Representatives from the community initiated a resolution to this situation, which was enthusiastically affirmed by the community as a whole, and the marriages were annulled.  A few comments on these events are appropriate.

First, a wise pastor once said, “Lumber stacked in a lumber yard begins to rot at the top.” With this comment he implied that the weakening and eventual disintegration of the community of faith usually begins with its leaders. Leaders, beware!

Second, grass-roots involvement in reform is necessary to bring about change. Leaders who impose their “clout” seldom accomplish their goal. It has been rightfully said, “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.” Again, leaders beware.

Third, leaders who lead by example do not need to ask people to follow. Their godly behavior will be all that is needed. Identification with the community, even in its sin, brings about commitment in repentance. Finally, leaders, take note.

The Prophecy of Zechariah

Zechariah was the younger contemporary of Haggai and the book that carries his name spans two eras. Chapters 1-8 contain the record of his preaching during the construction of the Temple. One of the well-known passages that relates to this period is 4:4-6, which encourages the people that the building of the Temple, like any work God calls us to, will not be accomplished by human effort alone.

So he said to me, “This is the word of the LORD to Zerubbabel: ‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the LORD Almighty. (Zec 4:6 NIV)

Chapters 9-14, while not specifically dated, appear to represent the period after construction was completed, probably during the reign of Xerxes, the king who deposed Vashti and made Esther Queen of Persia. I would like to spend this post discussing the material presented in these chapters, and suggest that they have a decidedly Gentile context. Therefore they describe the plan of God not only for Israel, but for the whole world.

These chapters (9-14) can be divided into two sections or oracles, chapters 9-11 and chapters 12-14, both of which describe the life and ministry of Messiah. In the first he is called Israel’s King.

Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. (Zec 9:9 NIV)

Yet their King is rejected (11:8) In the second oracle Messiah is called “the one they have pierced.”

And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and supplication. They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son. (Zec 12:10 NIV)

Here, Messiah is more than rejected. He is put to death. Now, to understand this verse, we need to look at 13:1

“On that day a fountain will be opened to the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and impurity.” (Zec 13:1 NIV)

Ash-CrossThe New Testament Gospels all record the fulfillment of 12:10 in the cross of Jesus. In 13:1 we know why the cross happened – in order to cleanse us from sin and impurity!! Even so, the smiting of our true shepherd will result in the scattering of the sheep. In the history following the ascension of Jesus, two thirds of the people will perish, but a remnant will survive and turn to the Lord and acknowledge that he is God (13:7-9). I suggest that this is fulfilled in the Church. Why is it that God always works with the minority? (This is not really a question, more like an observation.)

In chapter 14, there is a gathering of the nations for battle against the Lord and his army. (See Rev 19-20.) From the Mount of Olives, he will conquer all of his enemies and become king of the whole earth. There will be a great celebration of the day of the Lord and the consummation of the Kingdom of God with the King reigning in Jerusalem. (Rev 21-22)

But the real message of Zechariah is not in the last chapter. Rather it is in the first.

Therefore tell the people: This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘Return to me,’ declares the LORD Almighty, ‘and I will return to you,’ says the LORD Almighty. (Zec 1:3 NIV)

This is an invitation that spans any time period, made possible by the King who was pierced, and who will come again and reign in glory. Do you know him? Simply pray this prayer and you will:

Lord Jesus, I believe that you died on the cross as the cleansing sacrifice for my sins.I trust you now as my savior and King and ask you to make me one of your faithful followers who will live and reign with you forever. Amen.

The Prophecy of Haggai

couchWhen we studied about the first wave of returning Jews to Jerusalem (Ezra, Part 1), we began with the observation that life in Babylon was “comfortable”, a reason why only a small portion of Jews made the effort to make the long trip. Once they arrived, the work of rebuilding the temple commenced. Without delay, the altar was constructed and sacrifice and worship was restored. Next came the foundation of the Temple, with construction to follow, but not without a lengthy delay. Sixteen years passed and the Temple was incomplete, but comfortable personal homes for the people dotted the countryside. It seemed that the life the people enjoyed in Babylon was not easily forgotten. While the house of the LORD was incomplete, the homes of the people and the establishment of a prosperous lifestyle were given high priority. The returning exiles reproduced the prosperity they enjoyed in Babylon while neglecting the worship of the LORD, the very reason they returned to Jerusalem. Enter two prophets of the LORD, Haggai and Zechariah. Their ministry provided the motivation to get back to the work of rebuilding the Temple of the LORD.

Now Haggai the prophet and Zechariah the prophet, a descendant of Iddo, prophesied to the Jews in Judah and Jerusalem in the name of the God of Israel, who was over them.Then Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel and Joshua son of Jozadak set to work to rebuild the house of God in Jerusalem. And the prophets of God were with them, supporting them. (Ezr 5:1-2 NIV)

These two prophets spoke together, exchanging opportunities to preach. Precise textual anchors that establish dates show that one would speak and then the other. Together, they motivated the Jewish leaders to finish the project of rebuilding the Temple. Today I will survey the fiery preaching of Haggai and in my next post I will outline the ministry of Zechariah.

The message of Haggai is preserved in four sermons, which are probably summaries of the main body of the messages. His first message was directed to Zerubbabel, the governor, and Joshua, the High Priest. He boldly declared that it was not right to delay construction any longer. Turning to the people he chastised them for enjoying the comforts of home while God’s house lay in ruins. Seldom has a people responded so positively to a prophetic message. In only a few weeks, construction was underway. But the work was slow and difficult and morale waned. Haggai’s second message was very timely. Most thought that this temple could never measure up to the glory of the former Temple. Therefore, the people grew discouraged.

‘Who of you is left who saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Does it not seem to you like nothing? But now be strong, Zerubbabel,’ declares the LORD. ‘Be strong, Joshua son of Jozadak, the high priest. Be strong, all you people of the land,’ declares the LORD, ‘and work. For I am with you,’ declares the LORD Almighty. ‘This is what I covenanted with you when you came out of Egypt. And my Spirit remains among you. Do not fear.’ “This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘In a little while I will once more shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land. I will shake all nations, and what is desired by all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory, ‘ says the LORD Almighty. ‘The silver is mine and the gold is mine,’ declares the LORD Almighty. ‘The glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house,’ says the LORD Almighty. ‘And in this place I will grant peace, ‘ declares the LORD Almighty.” (Hag 2:3-9 NIV)

Here is the promise that this Temple will exceed the glory of the former Temple, a prophecy that came true in the aggressive expansion under Herod the Great. But the ultimate fulfillment of this prophecy rests in the ultimate Temple, the New Heavens and New Earth (See Ezekiel, Part 2 & 3). To understand that this is in view for this prophet we only need to notice his use of the ambiguous temporal descriptor, “a little while”, in Vs. 6 which could refer to his own time or to a time to come – or both.

Two months later, Haggai received another message from the Lord. The people experienced lean years during the time they neglected the construction of the Temple, but now that they resumed the work, the prophet promises that God’s blessing is before them. Although the seed had not yet been sown, they are to mark this day as the beginning of God’s provision. Better crops are ahead.

The lesson for believers in the 21st century is striking. The call of the comforts of life is strong. And support for the work of the LORD demands sacrifice. But when we put our priorities in the right order, God will honor our sacrifice and provide for our needs – and sometimes even our comforts.

Esther, Part 2

Over the years of ministry I have been fascinated by the many times that I have been tempted to take matters into my own hands, only to watch as the LORD turned the circumstance totally in the other direction. Most of the time this involved people who said or did something that was unethical, manipulative, or downright sinful, and responding in kind was my first impulse. When I resisted, (to my embarrassment I must confess that I did not resist in every case) I watched as the words of a mentor of mine came true, “Give people enough rope and eventually they will hang themselves.” I wonder if he was reading Esther when he learned that principle.

At my last post we left Esther at the entrance of the King’s chambers where she was about to request an audience with Xerxes in order to intercede on behalf of her people. You will remember that Haman, a high-ranking court official, convinced the King to issue an edict authorizing the annihilation of all Jews on the 13th day of Adar. In the providence of God, the King willingly welcomed Esther into his presence and inquired about her intentions. But instead of immediately explaining her request, she invited the king and Haman to dinner. Evidently the timing for making her request did not suit the queen during this occasion so she invited both the king and Haman to a second banquet the next day. It was during the 24 hours between these two banquets that the twist in the story occurs.

On his way home from the first dinner, Haman convinced himself that Esther invited him to a second dinner in order to bestow royal honors on him. But his joy and adulation were spoiled when he encountered Mordecai, who, consistent with his convictions, refused to bow down to him, an insult that ruined Haman’s fanciful expectation. When he complained to his wife and a few friends, he was advised to execute Mordecai. Gallows were immediately constructed to carry out the deed.

That same night, it just happened that Xerxes could not sleep. So, in order to make himself drowsy, he had the official court ledger read to him. It just happened that the court reporter read the entry where Mordecai discovered the plot to assassinate the king. When Xerxes inquired what had been done to honor Mordecai, he discovered that Mordecai had never been rewarded. At that moment, Haman arrived at the palace to request permission to have Mordecai hanged, only to be pre-empted with the king’s request for advice.

When Haman entered, the king asked him, “What should be done for the man the king delights to honor?” Now Haman thought to himself, “Who is there that the king would rather honor than me?” So he answered the king, “For the man the king delights to honor, have them bring a royal robe the king has worn and a horse the king has ridden, one with a royal crest placed on its head. Then let the robe and horse be entrusted to one of the king’s most noble princes. Let them robe the man the king delights to honor, and lead him on the horse through the city streets, proclaiming before him, ‘This is what is done for the man the king delights to honor! ‘” (Est 6:6-9 NIV)

Haman must have been delighted, only to be decisively crushed when the king subsequently said these words:

Go at once,” the king commanded Haman. “Get the robe and the horse and do just as you have suggested for Mordecai the Jew, who sits at the king’s gate. Do not neglect anything you have recommended. (Est 6:10 NIV)

Haman was humiliated and hurried home sulking and mourning. But he wasn’t home long when the king’s eunuchs arrived to escort Haman to Esther’s banquet, during which she revealed her national descent to the king and pleaded for her life and for the lives of her people. Furious at the circumstance, Xerxes stormed out of the room, which gave Haman the opportunity to plead for mercy before the queen by throwing himself prostrate on the couch where she was seated. Just then the king returned, and seeing Haman next to the queen, he assumed the worst and immediately ordered Haman’s execution for inappropriate advances toward Esther. Immediately, Haman was hung on the gallows he had built for Mordecai. The rope intended for Mordecai snapped the life out of Haman.

In a total change of heart, Xerxes issued a decree, reversing the command to slay the Jews, and further stated that if any Jew was attacked, he could defend himself and even retaliate. In the fighting that broke out, thousands of non-Jews were slain. Peace was quickly restored and from then to the present, that day has been observed as a day of Jewish celebration, a feast known as Purim, which means “lot”, the way Haman designated the 13th of Adar for his treachery.

So, the next time you are tempted to take matters in your own hands, remember Mordecai and Haman. God is the advocate of the righteous and the judge of the unrighteous. In the end, the wrong will fail and the right will prevail.

The Prophecy of Daniel, Part 1

During the recent presidential election, more than one pastor (me included) encouraged their congregations by insisting that no matter who was elected, God was in control, not only of our own nation, but of all the nations of the earth. God controls the nations and their histories. This is the concept behind my choice of calling these summaries of the books of the Bible, His-Story. God is orchestrating the affairs of men and of nations in order to accomplish his plan for salvation history. The sovereignty of God over the nations is the theme of the book of Daniel.

Praise be to the name of God for ever and ever; wisdom and power are his. He changes times and seasons; he deposes kings and raises up others. He gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to the discerning. He reveals deep and hidden things; he knows what lies in darkness, and light dwells with him. (Dan 2:20-22 NIV)

…the Most High is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and gives them to anyone he wishes. (Dan 4:25 NIV)

Daniel addresses the rise and fall of several nations in the world:  the Babylonian Empire, under two kings, Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar, the Medo-Persian Kingdom, under Darius and Cyrus, the Greek Empire under Alexander the Great, and the Roman Empire, that was greater than all the others. The pinnacle of Daniel’s prophetic pronouncements is his explanation of the rule of the “Son of Man” (7:1-14) who will reign over the Kingdom of God, the ultimate government, forever.

In the time of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever. (Dan 2:44 NIV)

The book of Daniel tells the story of Daniel and his three friends, who were taken to Babylon during the first round of deportations by Nebuchadnezzar. It is an amazing story of how this man of integrity refused to abandon his faith and how God honored him by giving him a prominent role in the Babylonian government. Through the God-given ability to interpret the king’s dreams, Daniel proves over and over that he is the greatest of the wise men of Babylon. But he is always careful to give all the glory to God, a lesson the king would learn as well.

Chapter 4:1-37 tells of how Nebuchadnezzar had a dream of a tree extending upward to heaven. It was so huge that it provided shade, food and shelter for beasts of the fields and birds of the air. But eventually, a holy guardian from heaven gave orders for the tree to be taken down, leaving only a stump. Daniel was called to interpret this dream and he told the king that the tree represented Nebuchadnezzar but that he would be cut off from his position and be relegated to life as an animal for seven years, until he realizes that all of his power comes from God. The king ignores this warning and continues to pridefully boast of his accomplishments. Suddenly he is stricken with an illness and ends up grazing in the pastures eating grass just as Daniel had warned. When his reason returned, the king acknowledged the sovereignty of the Lord Most High and in praise of him he confesses that the King of heaven is just in all of his ways and able to bring down even the mightiest earthly ruler.

But the Babylonian monarchy did not learn its lesson. Chapter 4 records how, about a decade later, Belshazzar assembles a thousand of his leading officials and their wives for a great banquet. They drank wine and celebrated using the gold and silver vessels removed from Solomon’s Temple when Jerusalem was sacked about 50 years earlier. Simultaneously, the gods and idols of Babylon were freely worshipped. Suddenly the king noticed hand-writing on the wall, but none of the wise men present were able to interpret what it meant. When the Queen reminded Belshazzar of Daniel’s ability as an interpreter of dreams and visions he was immediately summoned. Upon arrival, Daniel reminded the king of how Nebuchadnezzar was humbled because he exalted himself and did not give God the glory, but this king learned nothing from his father’s experience. Therefore, the writing on the wall meant that God had numbered the days of his reign, he had been found wanting and his kingdom would be given to the Medes and Persians. That very night the king was slain, Babylon was invaded and the Medo-Persian army occupied the city. The lesson is obvious. God governs the nations, and those who refuse to acknowledge his sovereignty will find themselves out of a kingdom!!

While all transitions of government might not be this dramatic, believers can have confidence that every nation and power, every kingdom on earth is under the hourglass of God’s timing. Eventually, God will overtake them all and establish his kingdom forever. A word to those present-day leaders would be appropriate – acknowledge the sovereign rule of God or look forward to being out to pasture.

  1. Read 1 Cor 10:1-13. Is there anything in your life that might be considered an idol? Notice verse 12. Learning from the example from Nebuchadnezzar and his son, how might you express your worship of the LORD?
  2. Read Matt 24:36-44. Now read Dan 7:1-14. How does Jesus explain that he is the fulfillment of Daniel 7?

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