19. Challenge

Short Meditations in John 7:  19.  Challenge

Jn 7:19 Has not Moses given you the law? Yet not one of you keeps the law. Why are you trying to kill me?”  

I don’t know if you have ever thought this about Jesus but he is unpredictable. If you were writing a fictional account (and this isn’t fiction!) about a man called Jesus, you might create a steady flow in the narrative like any good writer does, but when we come to this verse, my initial response was, “I didn’t see that coming!” Why do I say that? Because it is quite confrontational. There is a direct challenge in it and then a confrontational question.

First the direct challenge: “not one of you keeps the law.” Now today with some insight aided by hindsight, we might with the apostle Paul accept that it is impossible, of ourselves, to perfectly keep the Law (see Rom 7), but Jesus was speaking into a society that was grounded in the Law. The temple authorities would have maintained that they kept the law and the Pharisees prided themselves that they were the keepers of the law.

To challenge them (with the truth) by saying that none of them kept the law, was about as confrontational as it gets! They no doubt would have defensively started of thinking of specific ways they did keep parts of the law at least, but Jesus is speaking about something much more fundamental than keeping individual laws, he will be challenging them about their distorted values, as we will see when we move on.

Second, the confrontational question: “Why are you trying to kill me?” That cuts right across the flow, it seems at first sight, and puts the ball right in their court. But does it cut across the flow? Consider. From v.16 on Jesus has been making the point that he has come from God – at the very least that he has been sent by God – and his  words and teaching and healings prove that.

Also he knows that there have been murmurings and that the authorities were against him (v.11,13) and, even more that they wanted to kill him (see 7:1) which had started much earlier (see 5:18) and even the crowd knew this (see later 7:25) so Jesus will make this challenge again (see 8:37,40). However the point he seems to make now, in the face of all this, is, if I am from God why should you try and kill me? You kill God’s ambassador? Indeed Jesus actually told a parable that highlighted this (see Mt 21:33-41) and challenged Jerusalem over its history of killing God’s servants (see Mt 23:37, Lk 11:48), and so in fact this present challenge comes perfectly in line with the events that were forming around him and his wider teaching that challenged the lack of ethics in the authorities.

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2. Lottery Winners?

The Impossibilities of God in a Broken World, the story of Christmas, Meditations:

2. Lottery Winners?

Lk 1:8,9 Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense.

 Luck?   One of the mysteries of life on this planet is about ‘luck’. Just what is luck? An online dictionary defines it as, success or failure apparently brought by chance rather than through one’s own actions.’ Millions of people, who really can’t afford it, play the lottery. It is said, I believe that the odds of winning the National Lottery in the UK is 1 in 45 million, but people think, ‘Why shouldn’t that one be me? Imagine 45 million of you crowded shoulder to shoulder on a small island – well, not such a small island! And somebody on a passing boat who happens to have a catapult fires a small stone into the air. How safe are you? Pretty safe. The odds are that it is going to hit someone else.

Zechariah’s odds:  We find early on in the Christmas story an aging priest called Zechariah. Now every male directly descended from Aaron was automatically a priest and at this time there were likely to have been about twenty thousand of them, divided into twenty-four divisions. Each division served in the Temple in Jerusalem for one week twice a year. Burning incense in the temple happened twice a day and, as it was considered a special privilege, the person doing it each time was chosen by lot. Because there were so many of them, often a priest would never have that privilege but if it did occur, thereafter the priest would be considered special, “rich and holy”. Work out how many times in a year and the number in your division and the odds are something like 1 in about 50-70. No wonder most never had the opportunity.  (An aside: You and I were not chosen by God in a lottery.)

Destiny? So the odds were remarkably better than winning our lottery but still pretty unlikely. At this point people start muttering about ‘destiny’ and we start getting into what power, if any, makes something happen, fate if you like. And then again we come back to luck, chance or good fortune? Or does God have a hand in it all? Well there is something we can say about this when it comes to the Bible and that is that there ARE clearly times when God does intervene, act or speak, and there are times when it seems a bit of a long-shot for something to have happened without it being God, and there are times when it just does seem chance, stuff that happens for no discernible reason. Sometimes things do happen as consequences of other previous things.

Here in the account about Zechariah it doesn’t say God made Zechariah win the lottery. Yes, he’s in it because he is of the family of Aaron and yes, it’s the turn of his particular division but beyond that we really can’t go any further. Often people ask, “Why did that have to happen?” and it is an unwise person who tries to give a specific answer. If you drink too much and then stumble into the road and are run over by a passing vehicle, you don’t need to be a brain surgeon to suggest that alcohol had a part to play in it.  Yet often things do happen for no apparent accountable reason, but when you start looking at other factors in the equation, that’s when it starts getting interesting!    

Life is not always kind: For instance, let’s consider Zechariah. You probably know about him if he has been included in your Advent readings. He is a good man and he’s got a good wife. Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly.” (Lk 1:6) You can’t ask more than that! But merely because you are good doesn’t mean to say that life will always be kind to you: “But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old.” (v.7) In a society where children were important that meant heart-ache. “Don’t you see that children are God’s best gift? the fruit of the womb his generous legacy? Like a warrior’s fistful of arrows are the children of a vigorous youth. Oh, how blessed are you parents, with your quivers full of children!” (Psa 127:3-5 Message version) When you live in that sort of culture, the inability to have children must raise questions, and certainly cause heart-ache, and maybe even a sense of shame at not being able to have children.

No Hope: The fact that they were both “very old” also suggested that now there was no hope of there ever being that possibility. Time has gone, we’ve missed the boat, we are second-class citizens, we always have been and always will be. The Lord gave me a word for someone the other day: “Don’t take anything as fixed”. Over the years I have twice had the privilege and joy of imparting the word of God to childless couples, “You will have a child within a year,” and they did. In both cases I had not known that the couples previously had been told they would remain childless. Jesus taught, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.” (Lk 18:27) or, as put in Matthew, “With God all things are possible” (Mt 19:26), and as the angel later said to Mary, “For with God nothing will be impossible.” (Lk 1:37) (An aside: Let’s never take what we see as the final, ‘This must be’).

Timing & Purpose: Now we are going to see that God is going to change this for this couple and give them a child and the question naturally arises in the mind, “Did God stop Elizabeth conceiving up until this time so as to reveal a miracle birth?” There is no indication of that and there is certainly no indication in Scripture that God has stopped all childless couples having children. It is simply the fact of living in a Fallen World where things go wrong. Yet one cannot help but wondering about God’s strategy behind all that is shortly going to take place. Was it pure chance that a childless (but righteous) priest gets the lottery and ends up in the Temple, the place where God was said to reside?

Expectation: But did Zechariah expect anything more from this experience beyond the fact that he could say he had done it? I doubt it. His response when the angel turns up and conveys God’s will is not a ‘full-of-faith’ response. And yet here is a significant lesson. We don’t have to be full of expectation for God to turn up. It does help sometimes but the bigger message that comes over in the Bible again and again is that God is the initiator. Moses was definitely not full of faith when God turned up at the burning bush (Ex 3) and similarly Zechariah is not full of faith here. In fact it may be that the disappointment of not having children had meant that his expectations of God were very low. No doubt he had prayed and prayed, but nothing had changed – until now, but now it is too late. It’s a broken world and sometimes it seems you just have to live with that – until God turns up and says otherwise, which is unlikely, we think. (An aside: Again, with God with us, let’s never say, “I’m stuck”.)

A problem: Now we are going to have to face a problem. We said in the first of these studies that this is not always a comfortable story, it’s often difficult and scary. Perhaps because we know the story too well we take things for granted. Zechariah is a good man and he is religious. His life is focused on the Temple, on serving God, and that describes many good Christians many of whom it could be said, “they were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly.”   Unfortunately that is good only up to a point. Why do I say that? Because Zechariah is just about to have a ‘God encounter’ and he’s not going to handle it too well. I have lived long enough to have seen the Lord turn up with ‘God encounters’ a number of times and I have to tell you that the people of God don’t always handle that very well. It is one thing to go to church, to be a ‘good’ Christian but how open are we to God turning up and doing something unexpected? That is the challenge that is about to come here. Are we ready for it? Dare we be honest about our likely response? I did say this story isn’t always comfortable. Now do you believe me? No longer an aside: When God comes and initiates an encounter with us, let’s see if we can simply say, “Yes, Lord.”

12. God’s Holy Mountain

Reaching into the Psalms 1 to 4:  12. God’s Holy Mountain

Psa 3:4    he answers me from his holy mountain.

God’s Presence: Again, how casually I have sped over these words with so little thought, and yet I suspect (is He telling me?) that here there are such profound truths to be mined as we meditate. Before we move on in this psalm, I believe there is something of significance that we have passed by without comment here in verse 4: “he answers me from his holy mountain”. What is that ‘holy mountain’?

Zion: Well, back in Psa 2 we read, “I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill.” (Psa 2:6) Further back in 2 Sam 5:7 we read, “David took the stronghold of Zion, that is, the city of David.” That is the first reference to ‘Zion’ and it clearly meant Jerusalem. It had long been known as Jerusalem, occupied by the Jebusites who Israel had failed to overthrow initially (Judg 1:21), and it had not been taken until David arrived in power, when he re-established it as his base and subsequently the capital of Israel. When the ark was brought there, and later in Solomon’s reign the temple built, and filled with God’s presence (1 Kings 8:10,11), it became known as the ‘holy city’: “Awake, awake, put on your strength, O Zion; put on your beautiful garments, O Jerusalem, the holy city.” (Isa 52:1)

Jerusalem: Jerusalem is described as “set high in the hills of Judah” (New Bible Dictionary) and one Internet site describes Jerusalem as follows: “Jerusalem’s seven hills are Mount Scopus, Mount Olivet and the Mount of Corruption (all three are peaks in a mountain ridge that lies east of the old city), Mount Ophel, the original Mount Zion, the New Mount Zion and the hill on which the Antonia Fortress was built.” When a prophet or psalmist refers to the ‘mountain of the Lord’ or ‘his holy mountain’ it can either mean Jerusalem generally or the hill or mountain on which the Temple was eventually built.

As David writes pre-the Temple, it is more likely to mean Jerusalem at large, Jerusalem the whole city. The designation ‘mountain’ may refer to the fact that all of the ‘hills’ of the Jerusalem area are well over 2000 feet above sea level, or it may simply be creating spiritual significance of a place of ascent on which God resides. A study of ‘mountains’ in the Old Testament must take us first to Moriah: Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.” (Gen 22:2) Amazingly this was Jerusalem where Solomon eventually built the temple (2 Chron 3:1) equated today, it is said, with the vicinity of Calvary. What a symbolic picture. The second mountain that stands out is Sinai where God met with Israel during the Exodus (See Ex 19-). The imagery that goes with that encounter suggests inaccessibility except by divine permission. So often when people went there, the record says they went up to Jerusalem, that same picture of ascending to meet with God that Moses showed us. Thus Jerusalem becomes the place of encounter with the inaccessible God and the place of god’s offering of His own Son to save the world.

Tent of Meeting: God’s instructions to build a Tabernacle (Ex 25-27) appear to be His early means of bringing limited access to Himself by His people. It was also referred to as ‘the tent of meeting (Ex 27:21 etc.): Set up the tabernacle, the tent of meeting, on the first day of the first month. Place the ark of the covenant law in it and shield the ark with the curtain.” (Ex 40:2,3) and it continued in existence until Solomon replaced it with the Temple (see 1 Kings 8). However in the time of Eli and Samuel, after the debacle with the Philistines, the ark (and presumably the Tent) stayed at Kiriath Jearim (1 Sam 7:1,2) until twenty years later David took it to Jerusalem (2 Sam 6) where it was placed inside “the tent that David had pitched for it.” (1 Chron 16:1), but this was clearly different from the Tabernacle still pitched at Gibeon (1 Chron 16:39) The ‘tent’ was clearly simply the home or location for the ‘ark of the covenant’ that was seen to be the place where the presence of God resided on earth. As we noted above, both ark and tent of meeting (as this tent now clearly became) were taken to the temple by Solomon (1 Kings 8:1-4)

God’s Dwelling Place? The ark in the Tabernacle? The ark in the Temple? The ark disappeared in history, but the Temple remained until Nebuchadnezzar destroyed it during the Exile but until then the Temple (and the ark) had been the focus or ‘dwelling place’ of God on earth. Why is that so significant? Because it was there by God’s instructions, and it was a place of focus on God, a place where people could go to worship God (even though they could not encounter His presence hidden in the Most Holy Place, or the Holy of Holies). So when David prays and get answers, they come from the God who has revealed Himself and positioned Himself in the midst of Israel.

And Today? The writer to the Hebrews conveys something quite amazing when he speaks to us: “You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire …. But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem.” (Heb 12:18,22) For us, Mount Zion is not just a mountain but a city and it is in heaven. At the end of his amazing visions recorded in the book of Revelation, John records, “One of the seven angels…. said to me, “Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.” And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.” (Rev 21:9,10) In the final words that follow it is clear that this heavenly city comes down to the newly recreated earth and is accessible to all, and Father and Son are in the midst of it. The mountain where God had been inaccessible, the place where the Godhead dwells, has finally come to be in the midst of redeemed mankind. In heaven or on the new earth, the dwelling place of God is accessible to redeemed mankind, to the people of God.

A Poignant Psalm: For David it was the place towards which he uttered his prayers, which makes this psalm, headed by “A psalm of David. When he fled from his son Absalom”, so poignant. Until then he had focused on God in Jerusalem but now he was on the run out of and away from Jerusalem and so his focus became more ‘long distance’ if we may put it like that. Yet there is another significant truth: even though David may not have close access to the Tent in Jerusalem, the Lord is still there; He has not departed Jerusalem, it is still HIS city and therefore there is a sense when David utters these words, they come with an underlying assurance that he is still in God’s hands, this is all happening because God is working out His disciplinary will for David and He, the Lord, is still the same and will still be there in Jerusalem for David to call to, and will still be there should the Lord allow him to return. God IS there – for us in heaven and for us by His Spirit, incredibly, indwelling us – and so it doesn’t matter what the earthly circumstances appear to be showing, in respect of the Lord, nothing has changed! He is there and He is there for us and He is there available to us because He has made it so! Hallelujah!

42. Ezekiel (3)

Meditations of Old Testament Highlights: 42.  Ezekiel (3)

Ezek 40:3,4    I saw a man whose appearance was like bronze; he was standing in the gateway with a linen cord and a measuring rod in his hand. The man said to me, “Son of man, look with your eyes and hear with your ears and pay attention to everything I am going to show you, for that is why you have been brought here. Tell the house of Israel everything you see.”

When I started off this series it was, I have come to realise, with a sense of naivety when I thought about one or two verses per book. To create meaning we have had to do far more than that, and now, as we find ourselves still in Ezekiel, we are about to embark on the most strange highlight in these studies, that which covers Ezekiel’s temple in chapter 40 onwards. Ezekiel I have characterised, like Isaiah and Jeremiah, as a mountain of prophecy, but perhaps a mountain range might be more appropriate and when you come to the end of the range, there you have this further ‘mountain’ covered in cloud and with a massive question mark over it.

Indeed this is going to be the strangest ‘meditation’ in this series for here is the thing about this part of Ezekiel:  First it is clearly dated as having come fourteen years after the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple within (40:1), second it is a vision (40:2), third in the vision Ezekiel sees in great detail the measurements of a temple (ch. 40-42),  fourth, more than once he is told to take great note of what he sees (40:4, 43:10,11 44:5), fifth, the glory of the Lord comes to this temple (ch.43), sixth the detail includes the priesthood and working within it (43:18-44:31, 45:9-24), seventh, there are details about apportioning the Land, layout and use of it (45:1-8, 47:15-48:35) and eighth,  IT WAS NEVER BUILT and these things never followed!

So the question arises, why were these nine chapters written down and never followed? What is the point of them being here? Why bother to read them? Let’s answer those in reverse order.

Why read them? We can only make suggestions. First we read then because for one reason or another they have been included in the canon of Scripture, first by the Jews who compiled the Old Testament scriptures, and second by the early church fathers who accepted it. Second, we might also add that within these chapters there are a number of passages with more details that exhort the Israelites of Ezekiel’s day to repent from their past and live out a new future, a continuation of the earlier parts of the book, if you like. Third, there is also a sense of holiness as the glory of the Lord is seen again, now filling this visionary temple, and with a general sense of holiness which comes through in these chapters.

What is the point of them being here?  Well, we may make several suggestions. First, in the day when the exile is well and truly under way, and the exiles have lost their temple, even though Ezekiel and Jeremiah have both prophesied restoration to the Land, this long, detailed section on the temple declares loud and clear, “God has NOT finished with His temple, His intent is still that He will dwell in the midst of His people.”  Second, they continue that sense of ‘heavenly otherness’ that is common to parts of Ezekiel, a challenge almost against humanistic thinking. We are left with questions that only God will answer. Third, they open up a whole new area of hope, for the Israelites of Ezekiel’s day, and the Jews of today. Why? Because the vision has not yet been fulfilled.

That leads us to think about the different ways these chapters can be seen. Commentators over the years have come up with a number of suggestions. First that this was never meant to be taken literally, that perhaps it is just meant to convey spiritual truths, or that it may even be a description of a heavenly temple. Second, that it should be taken literally which opens up the possibility that the people of Ezra’s time simply failed to build to this scale. The alternative is that it will yet be built in the future, maybe in the thousand year ‘millennium’ period of Rev 20:4 and you know the fun thing about all this – we just don’t know! What a challenge to those who feel insecure in their faith and feel they have to have everything neatly buttoned up and understood!

But let’s finish with a fairly brief reference to a beautiful few verses in chapter 47, the vision of the river flowing out of the Temple. It appears, first of all, flowing out from under the threshold of the temple (47:1). As it flowed it became a deeper and deeper river (47:3-6) and where it flowed down into the Dead Sea, it turned it into fresh water (47:8), and wherever it flows life bursts forth (47:9). On its banks fruit trees grow in abundance providing both food and healing (47:12). No interpretation is give and so we are just left to surmise for ourselves.

Whatever else it might say, it must speak of the life that flows out from the presence of the Lord, life that grows greater and greater the more it flows out, life that brings life, and life that transforms and changes that which is dead into a vibrant living environment. Two observations: first this flows from the presence of God portrayed by this temple in this vision. Second, this is the very life that flows forth from heaven through the Church today and even on a bigger scale through the kingdom of God in whatever form that is expressed – the blessing of God on earth.

And so a final question: does this mean that this long-winded picture of the temple is just God’s way of catching our attention to say, “I have a plan, a detailed plan of how I will bring my presence to the earth so that life can flow forth bringing transformation to this sin-weary world”? Does He further say, “I simply make the point that you will not fully understand it, but this plan is there and it will be fulfilled through my Son, Jesus Christ”?

Well, to get the most out of this study you are going to have to read chapters 40 to 48 so if you want to, copy, paste and print this study and keep it beside you as you read those chapters. You’ll only need half an hour and who knows what the Lord might pick out to speak to you. Be blessed.

33. Isaiah (1)

Meditations of Old Testament Highlights: 33.  Isaiah (1)

Isa 6:1     In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple.

From the sublime to the ridiculous! Going from a love song to a mountain of prophecy in search for highlights is probably the definition of culture shock!  There is so much in this incredible mountain of prophecy that includes a short passage of history. Commentators often divide the book into

  • Part 1: The Book of Judgments (Ch.1-35) which also includes a heavenly vision and Isaiah’s calling,
  • Part 2: An historical interlude, which anchors Isaiah in the reign of Hezekiah (Ch.36-39), and
  • Part 3: The Book of Comforts (Ch.40-66),

the titles giving a sense of the overall themes found in these prophecies.

I was originally intending to move into looking at two different sorts of prophecy in Isaiah but as I think about it, the calling of some of these prophets is so dramatic that they must feature among the highlights of the Bible. In Jeremiah it comes in the first chapter, in Ezekiel it comes in the second chapter, but in Isaiah we have to wait until the sixth chapter before Isaiah’s calling is shown to us.

Uzziah reigned from 792 to 740 and in 1:1 we are told he saw visions in the reigns of four kings of Judah (the southern kingdom), starting with Uzziah, and so it is possible that he received the contents of chapters 1 to 5 before Uzziah died. We cannot be sure but if that was so, it shows us that prophets could receive words from God (and there a number in Old Testament history of whom this is true) without having that personal encounter that we find here and in Jeremiah. (We don’t hear of it, for example, of Daniel) So why does the Lord give Isaiah such a revelation? Perhaps the answer is in the historical context and what the vision reveals.

From the verses of chapters 1 to 5 (and, indeed, many subsequent chapters) the state of Judah was not spiritually good. However, there had been a period of stability under Uzziah who we can see from above ruled for over fifty years, yet in the last five years, Assyria had started expanding its power under Tiglath-Pileser III (745-727) and had started invading neighboring areas, which included Canaan in the north at least. And now Uzziah dies. I parallel this with the death of Queen Elizabeth II in the UK (which must happen one day!). She has presided as head of the UK, as at early 2017, for 65 years, the longest reigning monarch. As such she has been and remains a figure exuding stability. When she eventually dies, there will be an enormous psychological hole in the psyche of the United Kingdom. Such is how it would have been when Uzziah died after a similarly long reign – and especially as there was an air of uncertainty about the future with the rising power of Assyria. It is into this context that this revelation comes. So what does it reveal and how does that impact on this historical context?

Note how the vision starts off: “I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple.” (v.1) In the vision (and so it is a mental and spiritual picture, not actual reality) he is shown God and the picture of God is of a mighty ruler. He is seated on a throne which historically is the place from which rulers make pronouncements but it is in a temple. He is robed as a king quite obviously and the train of this robe stretches out to fill this temple. Now this is difficult to comprehend but what it does say is that the size, magnitude or length of this train is so great that if there are any other occupants of this temple, they would have to be standing on it (have you ever thought that?). If that is so it signifies a closeness but also a submission to this king. Above this king there are angels (v.2) singing or at least declaring the truth about this king (v.3) that this king is “the I AM almighty” and He is holy, thrice holy emphasizing it, He is utterly different from any other being in existence, and His glory can be seen (by those with eyes to see) throughout the earth. As they speak, the place shakes, such is the power of the revelations they speak out.

The impact on Isaiah is immediate. He feels totally unworthy, unclean, doomed! (v.5). Now there is obviously an altar in this temple with fire upon it and one of the angels takes a red-hot coal from this altar and touches his mouth with it and declares, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.” (v.6,7) However we may interpret this it means that before anything else, Isaiah’s past human history – and by implication, guilt – is removed by an act of God. He is put at ease before the Lord.

What follows is intriguing. The Lord implies a task and in so doing presents it before Isaiah: “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” (v.8a)  The redeemed and cleansed Isaiah now feels able to be used by God and, “I said, “Here am I. Send me!” (v.8b) to which the Lord gives him marching orders for his future ministry. (v.9-)

Now what has all this said, this historical context and this vision? It says that naturally speaking Isaiah, no doubt like everyone else in the land, would be feeling uncertain about their future now the stability of Uzziah’s reign has gone and there are threatening noises from the north. They lacked a king, a protective ruler. And so Isaiah is given this revelation of God on high, God who is the I AM, the Eternal One first revealed like this to Moses, but also the Almighty One, the All-powerful One, the utterly different one who is THE king, the ruler over all things. Isaiah, through the experience, is transformed and knows that God has cleansed and equipped him, made him fit for the task.  Isaiah, through the revelation, has been transformed in his thinking, in his understanding for he has seen the Lord of the Universe; he has a king who is supreme, he knows the Lord and in that he will be utterly secure, in the face of his own people’s unbelief and in the face of invading unbelievers. Bring it on!

Now you may not have had a vision in this form but, as a Christian, a child of God, you have had and have received the revelation of the Son of God who has come and put you right with God. The more we know of this revelation the more we, like Isaiah, see we have a Lord who is Lord over all, who is in total, supreme and sovereign control, ruling (as Psa 100 prophetically says) in the midst of His enemies. He is working out His plans and purposes and no one will stop them coming to fruition at the appointed time. You and I can have the same sense of having been cleansed as Isaiah was. You and I can have the same sense of security through revelation that Isaiah had. You and I, like Isaiah, when we have a need presented before us by the Lord, can say with him, “Here am I lord, send me,” in the sure knowledge that He has done everything that has needed to be done to prepare and equip us for whatever He puts before us. Whatever He places before us, will not be too much for us, because He is with us and He has given us all we need to accomplish it. Hallelujah!

23. Ezra

Meditations of Old Testament Highlights: 23.  Ezra

Ezra 1:1   In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfill the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah, the LORD moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia to make a proclamation throughout his realm and to put it in writing:

I find the book of Ezra is like a firework display, not one of these amazing modern displays you see at New Year in capitals of the world, but the more amateurish ones with a rocket going up, darkness, a blaze of light and colour, darkness, more startling colour and light, darkness, and so on.  Our starting verse is the reason for all that follows. It is the launch firework and it brings a continuation, being a repeat of the closing verses of 2 Chron, the amazing move of God on king Cyrus that released Israel to return to their land to rebuild the Temple (that is what Ezra is all about) and then rebuild the city and its walls (that is what Nehemiah that follows on is all about). After the darkness of forty years silence while Israel remain in exile, suddenly these two rockets, Ezra and Nehemiah blaze out and then after the accompaniment of some of the minor prophets, darkness falls again for over four hundred years until John the Baptist appears on the scene.

So Cyrus makes provision for people to return, with wealth to help them (Ch.1), and lists are provided of those who returned (Ch.2) some 50,000 people all together. And so the work of restoration begins (Ch.3) and the next amazing firework bursts upwards: With praise and thanksgiving they sang to the LORD: “He is good; his love to Israel endures forever.” And all the people gave a great shout of praise to the LORD, because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid. But many of the older priests and Levites and family heads, who had seen the former temple, wept aloud when they saw the foundation of this temple being laid, while many others shouted for joy. No one could distinguish the sound of the shouts of joy from the sound of weeping, because the people made so much noise. And the sound was heard far away.” (3:11-13) A time of immense celebration that evokes different responses according to generation. Understandable.

But then darkness falls. The enemies of Israel come (4:1) and offer to help build, but they are aliens who were imported into the Land long back, and Israel decline their offer. But the darkness continues: “Then the peoples around them set out to discourage the people of Judah and make them afraid to go on building.” (4:4) And so it continued: “At the beginning of the reign of Xerxes, they lodged an accusation against the people of Judah and Jerusalem…and .. wrote a letter to Artaxerxes,” (4:6,7) and the king replied, “Now issue an order to these men to stop work, so that this city will not be rebuilt until I so order,” (4:21) and so, “Thus the work on the house of God in Jerusalem came to a standstill until the second year of the reign of Darius king of Persia.” (4:24) Thus chapter 4 is a chapter of darkness as far as the rebuilding is concerned.

But then up goes a rocket which bursts into great light: “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,” (5:1) and the light that came with the word of God, released faith so that, “Then Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel and Jeshua son of Jozadak set to work to rebuild the house of God in Jerusalem. And the prophets of God were with them, helping them.” (5:2)

But then comes a moment of darkness: “At that time Tattenai, governor of Trans-Euphrates, and Shethar-Bozenai and their associates went to them and asked, “Who authorized you to rebuild this temple and restore this structure?” (5:3) and they send a letter, a very honest and complete letter (see 5:6-17),  to king Darius asking that this be checked out. Meanwhile a Catherine Wheel of light continues to splay out light: “But the eye of their God was watching over the elders of the Jews, and they were not stopped until a report could go to Darius and his written reply be received.” (5:5)

Eventually the king investigates and confirms that the word had been authorized by Cyrus. Suddenly another great display bursts into the darkness that had been hanging there: “Do not interfere with the work on this temple of God. Let the governor of the Jews and the Jewish elders rebuild this house of God on its site. Moreover, I hereby decree what you are to do for these elders of the Jews in the construction of this house of God: The expenses of these men are to be fully paid out of the royal treasury, from the revenues of Trans-Euphrates, so that the work will not stop.” (6:1-8) and further reinforces this initial order with instructions that severe punishment will be meted out on anyone who disregards it. (see 6:9-12) It is awesome!

There is a moment’s pause and then one very bright rocket bursts upwards: “The temple was completed on the third day of the month Adar, in the sixth year of the reign of King Darius.” (6:15) It is almost exactly seventy years since the Temple was destroyed and it has taken three and a half years to rebuild. There then follows an enormous and varied display as there are great celebrations at the dedication of the Temple (6:16-18) and they then celebrate the Passover (6:19-22).

After a pause a new firework bursts into the sky. It is the arrival of Ezra, a great, great, great etc. grandson of Aaron. (7:1-6) It is quite amazing that throughout the period of their exile, people like Ezra had managed to keep to their priestly role and learn the Law so they could pass it on to future generations. There are more bursts of light: “He was a teacher well versed in the Law of Moses, which the LORD, the God of Israel, had given. The king had granted him everything he asked, for the hand of the LORD his God was on him… Ezra had devoted himself to the study and observance of the Law of the LORD, and to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel.” (v.6,10)

But then sky is filled with light as the present king, Artaxerxes, sends a letter of commission which is truly amazing. (Read it in 7:11-22) and the chapter finishes with a peon of praise from Ezra himself for what the Lord has done (7:27,28). The remaining chapters, if we may conclude our picture language is one long burst of light as we observe Ezra’s administration and then his reforms that bring a great public affirmation that they are indeed still the Lord’s people!

What is the big lesson from this book? It is that although the Lord may provide great vision and release great faith for us to achieve His purposes, the enemy will seek to rise up again and again but, as the ministries of the (now) body of Christ operate and the word and faith are released, the obstacles and hindrances and attacks will be overcome. This calls for us to hold to the vision of the kingdom of God and the body of Christ, and to remain faithful to Him, to seek Him and listen to Him, be empowered and directed by Him, and as we are obedient to His leading, triumph!  Hallelujah! (PS. Sorry, the one verse highlight turned into a book highlight!)

2. Anticlimax & Provocation

Meditations on Aspects of Easter:  2.  Anticlimax & Provocation

Mark 11:12   The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry.

It is Monday morning. Across the city and, indeed, in the surrounding villages where Passover pilgrims might be staying, people are waking up and wondering. They wonder about what had happened yesterday. Yesterday the Messiah had come to the city, they thought, yesterday he was welcomed by the crowds. For the Roman commanders, no doubt they had held their breath for a moment as the potential for a riot, if not worse, appeared to be approaching the city. But then it had dissipated as, instead, the crowd had gone up to the Temple. No doubt they breathed a sign of relief.

But not so in the house of the Chief Priest or in the homes of the temple administrators.  The agitator from the north had come and then, thankfully, gone. But at least he didn’t seem to upset the Romans! If he does that we’re really in trouble. It’s bad enough that we know we have these various rebels and troublemakers around who want to cause trouble and rise up against them. If they are allowed to cause upset – and just before this most important feast of the year – the Romans will bring such a crackdown it may even curb the entire festivities. We mustn’t let that happen! (We will follow what happened now in Mark’s account in chapter 11 – different from the others but we’ll comment on that in a later meditation))

And out at Bethany, just a few miles away where Jesus is staying with his disciples, the disciples wake and wonder. What will the master do today?  Yesterday was pretty exciting but where did it go? As they go to leave Bethany early in the morning, Jesus pauses for a moment and then wanders over to a fig tree. (v.13,14) It’s the time of the year when fig-trees normally begin to get leaves but do not produce figs until their leaves are all out in June. This tree was an exception in that it was already, at Passover time, full of leaves. A tree that looked good but bore no fruit!  And so he cursed it. His disciples looked on and wondered.  It wasn’t until they passed it next day on the way into town and saw it shriveled that they wondered some more and Peter commented, but Jesus gave no answer that made sense, it seemed, but simply taught them about having faith (v.20-). It would only be with further reflection that we might see Jesus highlighting a failure of Judaism – looking good but not producing godly fruit, thus worthy of divine condemnation.

But now on this Monday, he makes his way back up into the city and up to the temple. (v.15-) He enters and in a loud voice starts denouncing their making the temple a market, and starts turning tables over. Total chaos. There is much shouting. What is going on? He’s turned on his own people, or at least he’s turned on the administration of Judaism. If this is the Messiah he seems to have got it wrong. We expected him to have sorted out the Romans but instead he’s turned on us? The temple officials come running but Jesus has left. They had been made to look fools as this agitator from the north had gate-crashed the crowds in the temple and caused havoc and denounced them.

It is Tuesday and the familiar walk into town from Bethany starts again. They see the withered fig tree but continue on into town and again aim for the temple. In the temple courts, before he has time to do anything else, a band of the religious leaders approach him (v.27) and expecting a repeat of yesterday, demand, By what authority are you doing these things and who gave you authority to do this?” Jesus floors them with a question of his own which they refuse to answer, but it leaves them disarmed. Jesus turns away and teaches the crowd and tells a parable (12:1-) that had distinctly Old Testament echoes about it, of a vineyard owner who lets out his vineyard but whose rent-collectors are rejected, eventually sending his son who they then kill. The authorities, standing there in the background listening, know he is talking about them. The vineyard story was a familiar one used by the prophets to denounce Israel. They are angry, and they turn away angrily talking in whispers about how they could arrest the provocateur. (v.12)

Jesus leaves but they aren’t done with him yet. They gather some Herodians (more politically motivated and friends of the Romans) and some Pharisees (from a very conservative religious grouping who thought themselves guardians of the Law), both groups with their own agendas, (v.13) but both of whom would be upset by any challenge from an outsider from the north, and they send them to challenge Jesus, but he confounds them.  Then there came (v.18) a group of Sadducees, (another religious party of wealthy Jews who focused in Jerusalem on the temple) and challenged him, but again were confounded by Jesus.

It is a week of continual confrontation. By the way Jesus comes each day to teach in the vicinity of the temple, it is almost as if he is provoking the authorities, goading them into wrong action. He simply speaks the truth and his depth of teaching confounds all those who come to try to pull him down. The Chief Priest and the other priests are zealous to protect Judaism as they know it and they fear his presence might cause the Romans to react harshly against them. The Sadducees are jealous for their city and their temple and are angry that an interloper can barge in during the week running up to the great festival, causing upset. The Herodians fear political challenge and upset and see him as a real threat. The Pharisees can’t quite understand where he’s coming from, but it feels like he is challenging everything they believe in. He must go! The forces of opposition are mounting day by day. How will it end?

For those of us familiar with the story (possibly too familiar) we know the end, but what have we got here? We have the Son of God working out his Father’s strategy that will bring about his death on the Friday of this week. The apostle Peter, under the anointing of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, would summarise all this: This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.” (Acts 2:23) Yes, it was God’s set or pre-ordained purpose for this to come about and His foreknowledge knew that if sinful men were provoked enough by goodness they would rise up and sacrifice the Lamb of God who had come from heaven for that very purpose.

That is what is happening here and with hindsight it is easy for us to take it in, but imagine you were a disciple in this week. I suggest you would be largely clueless as to what is going on. Yes, Jesus has spoken about what was to happen (as we’ll remind ourselves in a later meditation) but it all seemed so strange, as to be beyond believing and so you had pushed it to the back of your mind. What we don’t understand we ignore and, if we are honest, often circumstances are so strange, we just don’t understand them; that’s just how life is so often but just possibly, God is working out His plans around you, even though you may not yet understand them. Simply trust Him and be at peace.

Additional Note:

In both this and the first meditation, I briefly noted that we were following Mark’s account of the things that occurred and because I am aware this differs in order from Matthew’s & Luke’s accounts, and question has been made about it, it seemed appropriate to add this further comment.

The Gospel writers, as they collate the reports and writings they have been collecting, aren’t always as clear as we today might wish report writing to be.  For instance, in the first meditation I cited Mark’s account of Jesus coming into Jerusalem, going to the temple, leaving and returning next morning to overturn the tables (Mk 11:9-17). Bear in mind that it is thought that Mark is dictated by the apostle Peter for whom these events would have been graphically imprinted on his mind!

Now if you look in Luke he, at first sight, appears to show the overturning tables on the same day of arriving. See Lk 19:41-46 and also Matt 21:9-13.  One reason, which is sometimes put forward, may be the total confusion that surrounded these events, which we’ll attempt to draw out as we proceed further through the week. Another reason, more likely, may be the simple fact that the Jewish writers approached their composition in a completely different way to the way we do today, often not bothering to include every detail (hence different accounts) and not showing the gaps in a series of (as they see them) individual actions. Thus in Matt 21, taking Mark into account, there is a twenty four hour gap between verses 11 and 12. Also Matthew being the ‘kingdom writer’ of the four, wants to emphasise Jesus’ ruling activities. Luke simply follows on. A different age, different styles and approaches to writing – but presenting the facts nevertheless.