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.

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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.

1. Acclaimed & Anticlimax

Meditations on Aspects of Easter:  1.  Acclaimed & Anticlimax

John 12:13  They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the King of Israel!”

Easter is approaching. We are just a week off and I want to put aside everything else for this week and simply meditate on the wonder and reality of this time, considering some of the key aspects of this all-important week. It is what we call Palm Sunday and it is exactly one week before Easter Sunday. Between now and then some of the most terrible things ever seen on earth have yet to happen. I love the Christmas story; it is so full of the miraculous and wonderful and full of joy. Easter is always a mixed bag. Part of it is full of anguish as we watch Good Friday approaching, full of dread at the awfulness we know is about to happen. But then the outcome is triumph, joy, rejoicing as the Son of God is revealed as the Resurrected One. It is a roller-coaster week, ups and downs and it starts here on Palm Sunday.

Of course it has started before this because just recently Jesus has been to nearby Bethany, to the home of Mary and Martha, to the wake of their brother Lazarus, who Jesus comes and raises from the dead. As a result of that, the word has spread that this miracle worker is in town. Of course he had been doing this sort of thing for the last three years up in Galilee but now he’s just done this most amazing thing on Jerusalem’s doorstep, so to speak (Lazarus had been dead for a number of days).

Israel was in a particularly fraught political position, having been overrun by the Romans and now under their rule for a number of years, and there were many political factions who wanted to rise up against their oppressors. Add to this the shadow of a Messiah spoken of a number of times in the Old Testament prophetic writings, and with the coming of their first prophet for over four hundred years, just three years ago, they are primed to believe the time might be right for the overthrow of the Romans by their possible Messiah. It was the apostle John who remembered this aspect of that time when, after the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.” (Jn 6:15)

Now, not long after the incredible raising of Lazarus from the dead, and shortly before the coming Feast of the Passover, when literally hundreds of thousands of visiting Jews would be there at and around Jerusalem, Jesus chooses to enter the city on a donkey. (We are following Mark’s version of events). The imagery is not lost on the crowd. No doubt he would have been seen from some distance off, and the crowd would grow exponentially as he neared the city. The word would have gone out: “Jesus, the miracle worker, the one with power over death is coming – and he’s coming on a donkey, just like Zechariah (one of the last prophets about four hundred years back) has declared: “Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem!  See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” (Zech 9:9). He’s coming to claim his crown, he’s coming to overthrow the Romans with his power. There is an immense sense of festivity, of coming triumph, of possibilities and the crowd are up for it! The crowd gets bigger and bigger and louder and louder as they enter the city gates. Come, they probably think, let’s go with him and watch as he turns up the road to the Fortress Antonia, the barracks of the Roman garrison, to throw them out!

But he turns the other way, he takes the roads up to the Temple, that gloriously restored temple of Herod, and he enters it and looks around the market there, that the temple money-changers had set up over the years, where pilgrims were expected to buy their sacrifices. What is this? He looks around and leaves.  That’s it?  That’s it. And therein is the story of the whole of the passion week and its outcome; it confused people because God was not doing what they expected. He has come to do something utterly out of this world, so big that that world would never be the same again, but big because it would affect the standing that mankind had before the holy God. That was what the Son of God had come to do, not bring about a political revolution.

And that is the thing about Christianity, it is full of surprises, things we were not expecting, things we find difficult to believe, things which confuse us. Oh yes, this Palm Sunday is not just about rejoicing at the welcoming of the Son of God, it is also about priorities. God’s priorities are so often different from ours. Centuries before, Isaiah had prophesied, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isa 55:,9)

The Lord comes to us with the challenge: it is not the state of the economy nor the state of politics, who is in power, what their policies are, that are all important. Yes, they are important but not THE most important. THE most important issue in the whole of your life is how you can possibly stand, as a sinful human being, before the almighty and holy God. That is what this week is all about.

38. The Old Order

Meditations in Hebrews 9:     38. The Old Order

Heb 9:1   Now the first covenant had regulations for worship and also an earthly sanctuary

Tabernacle Ministry: Our writer goes on to compare what went on in the earthly tabernacle (the earthly sanctuary) with what goes on in the heavenly one. In the earthly one the high priest carried out the ‘regulations for worship’ which comprised instructions for sacrifices and offerings. That was what the Tabernacle, and later the Temple, was all about. He reminds us that it was set up with a lamp-stand, a table and consecrated bread in the first room, the Holy Place (v.2) Then behind the curtain was the curtained off area called the Most Holy Place in which were the golden altar and the ark which contained a jar of manna, Aaron’s staff and the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments. (v.3,4) Above the ark were the cherubim but, he says, “we cannot discuss these things in detail now,” (v.5) so we likewise will simply move on.

He then reminds us that “the priests entered regularly into the outer room to carry on their ministry, but only the high priest entered the inner room, and that only once a year, and never without blood, which he offered for himself and for the sins the people had committed in ignorance.” (v.6,7) So, two rooms, the inner one only being entered once a year by the high priest, ad the outer one where daily service to God was provided.

He explains, “The Holy Spirit was showing by this that the way into the Most Holy Place had not yet been disclosed as long as the first tabernacle was still standing.” (v.8) i.e. there wasn’t general access to that inner room and to God’s presence as long as that Tabernacle or Temple service continued under the Law. But then he shows its further limitations: “This is an illustration for the present time, indicating that the gifts and sacrifices being offered were not able to clear the conscience of the worshiper. They are only a matter of food and drink and various ceremonial washings–external regulations applying until the time of the new order.” (v.9,10) i.e. the priests and the people did these things because they were told to, but they still felt guilty. Their obedience to the Law was good but it still didn’t leave them with any understanding that in fact justice had been done and punishment taken for their wrongs –  apart from by the animals they sacrificed. It DID provide a means of providing an obedient response to God showing the heart had turned but it DIDN’T appease their conscience. That was the old system, the old order, purely external things until the new order came and showed the reality.

Christ’s work: He then turns to what Christ has done: “When Christ came as high priest of the good things that are already here, (or ‘are to come’) he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not man-made, that is to say, not a part of this creation.” (v.11) We have to wait until later on when he explains, “Christ did not enter a man-made sanctuary that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence.” (v.24)  Christ’s activity on our behalf was acted out here on earth (although I don’t think ‘acted out’ is a good description of his dying on the Cross!) but the reality of it and what it achieved was brought about in heaven.  Then comes the key verse: “He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption.” (v.12)

‘The Blood’: For the new believer, references to “Christ’s blood” may seem strange but it is simply shorthand for “his death on the Cross for our sins”. Having said that, ‘blood’ was a key feature of the sacrificial system or, to be more precise, shedding it by killing the animal, and scripture declares that “the life of a creature is in the blood.” (Lev 17:11 and a number of other verses). We know that when our heart stops pumping blood around our system, life ceases. Remove the blood and you remove the life; it was that simple.

The Impact of a Sacrifice: Without doubt the sacrificial system was horrible, the taking an animal into the Tabernacle or Temple, placing your hand on its head and then having its throat cut so that the blood poured out so you could literally see the life ebbing away out of this creature, but I am certain that people would realise the seriousness of sin in a much greater way than any of us do today. Once you had done it once, you would resolve not to sin and have to do it again! (In comparison to modern Western societies it would certainly be almost crimeless!)

Christ the Offering: He explains that the sinner who was sprinkled with blood under some of these rites would be declared ceremonially clean and if that was so, how much more would Christ’s death on the Cross, “who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!” (v.14)  That is rather a heavy verse we had better delve into.

“How much more, then.”  If the old order was able to declare a person ceremonially clean how much more can a ritual involving the Son of God.

“will the blood of Christ.” i.e. his death on the Cross.

“who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God.” This was God himself, the One who is Spirit, who died, perfect without sin.

 “cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death.” i.e. our sinful acts are dealt with, acts that lead to spiritual death.

 “so that we may serve the living God!” The end outcome of Christ’s death is that we are left knowing we have done what God laid on for us, i.e. accepted HIS way of salvation, and knowing that justice has been served and our sins properly dealt with.

Us Today? The next verses are also information-packed so we’ll leave them to the next study. Today we may be grateful that we do not have to trek miles to a place where we are required to take an animal to be put to death. Today – and it is almost too easy and therein there is a danger that we become casual about it – we simply turn to God in prayer, confess our sins and declare our acceptance of Jesus as our Saviour and are forgiven and cleansed immediately.

The old was making a primitive people aware of the seriousness of Sin as far as God and people are concerned. The fact that we do not have to follow through those rituals should not make us casual. Perhaps that is the main reason the writer to the Hebrews spells it out as he does; it is another of his warning-encouragements that he keeps on bringing to encourage us to stay on track. Being reminded and being aware of the seriousness of Sin and the wonder of what Christ has done for us, should truly be a motivating factor to keep us in the Faith. Amen? Amen!

5. The Temple Rebuilder?

Meditating on Great Themes in John:   5. The Temple Rebuilder?

John 2:19-22  Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”  The Jews replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” But the temple he had spoken of was his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the Scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.

This is not so much a great theme as an insight and recognition of the symbolic language that Jesus sometimes used to speak a truth but not in a way that many would understand. John has given us the multifaceted chapter 1 and then turned to a miraculous sign to show us that he is a life transformer and now he relates an incident that happened at the Feast of the Passover in Jerusalem and we may wonder what was the link or what was the train of thought that was going through John’s mind as he possibly dictated this Gospel to one of his younger disciples.

So what happened? Our problem, I suggest is that we so focus on the drama of this incident that we fail to take note of the key significant thing that comes out of it, that is in fact the link to what has just gone before. So the drama. Jesus arrives in the temple and is horrified to see that it is a veritable market place: In the temple courts he found men selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.” (v.14,15)

Now we should note that this happens in the first year of his three year ministry in John, whereas it appears in the last weeks of his ministry in the Synoptic Gospels. It is logical to suggest that it did in fact happen twice. It is the start of his ministry and because he would have been to Jerusalem many times as he grew up, and had attended Passover celebrations there many times no doubt, he would have known what was going on. Sacrifices were required in the temple and the authorities had made it easy for people to buy them there rather than have to bring them any distance from home. It also made money for the Temple authorities. Jesus wouldn’t have acted previously because his ministry has a clear beginning (with baptism and temptation and anointing) and so this is the first time he has been there since that. It is unlikely that he would not have acted until the last weeks only, because the cause of his indignation was clearly there the whole time of those three years.

It is probable that he did it at the start of his ministry because he is now moving under his Father’s authority and it is probable that the temple remained ‘cleansed’ for the next year or so and then gradually reverted back to the market approach by the time of his final Passover, when his cleansing of it would now act as a good means of provocation to stir the authorities against him to bring about the events of Good Friday.

What is interesting here is the response of the authorities. They want to know his authority. They don’t so much deny it is wrong but want to know who he thinks he is. So, “the Jews demanded of him, “What miraculous sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?” (v.18) It is at this point that Jesus comes out with this enigmatic statement: “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” (v.19) Now three things must follow logically from this: First, he is a deluded maniac who is just talking rubbish and can be ignored as such.  Second, if he means recreating the physical temple in three days, he is claiming divinity, because only God could perform such a miracle. They have just asked for a miraculous sign to verify his authority and if he did that, that would certainly be a miraculous sign. Third, he obviously means something else but what that is they don’t know. Certainly references so far to a temple always made you think of the physical building.

John adds the insight of the years: “But the temple he had spoken of was his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the Scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.” (v.21,22) They subsequently realise that he was speaking about his own resurrection. So how does that link with what John has told us in the first half of chapter two?

There we saw Jesus the life transformer, as he transformed water into wine. Here we see Jesus the life bringer, and that is in respect of human beings. He doesn’t only transform things and situations, he has the ability to transform human beings. If he can transform a dead body and bring it back to life, then he can transform anybody. More specifically, in the spiritual realm, he can take spiritually dead people and bring them to spiritual life and that is exactly what happens, of course,  when someone is born again. Ah, there is the link to chapter three!