Anticipating the Lord of History

It’s been several years since I posted anything in this space, and even longer since a regular posting has been in the offing. But today I was encouraged by the thought that, after receiving some feedback in the past few weeks, that these posts are occasionally helpful to folks interested in studying the scriptures and even other matters of a political or theological nature. So in light of that, I’m going to post below a sermon I preached this morning on Luke chapter 1. I hope its enjoyable and enlightening for anyone stumbling across it online.

PJ Wenzel

Welcome to the advent season!  Advent season – the celebration of the arrival of Jesus.

During this advent season, we’re going to be looking at several key figures in the birth narrative of our Lord, with the purpose of walking in their sandals a bit. To see that they were not only narrative furniture in the story of Jesus, but men and women whose lives furnish us with examples of how Jesus’ advent changed them, and how the Gospel transformed their lives and hearts.

Zechariah was one such man.  We’re going to walk through the first part of Luke 1 together, I’m going to read some of the story with you, and because it’s a longer passage, I’m going to make some contextual comments along the way, and then we’ll examine the story from a few different angles. 

So…Luke 1 beginning in verse 5, please follow along with me…

[5] In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. [6] And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. [7] But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years.

Zechariah was a priest from the line of Aaron. Aaron was the brother of Moses, and in the Bible it is through Aaron’s line that the priesthood would be maintained. But not only is Zechariah from this tribe, so is his wife, Elizabeth. It was said in those days that a woman of excellent character was “fit to marry a priest.” But here we learn she is not only righteous in character but is also of the lineage of Aaron, and this would have been thought a double blessing for Zechariah.

Note also that these are older folks. Just like Abraham and Sarah, they are old and unable to have children. From Sarah to Hannah to Elizabeth, again and again in Scripture there is a theme that the Lord delights to show his power and grace in the barren womb. God being glorified in the midst of suffering is also a major Biblical theme, and in the stories of women like Elizabeth, the two themes are beautifully and powerfully woven together. Now, verse 8…

[8] Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, [9] according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense.

By this time there were so many priests that the line of Aaron was divided up into 24 different divisions, and even those divisions were so populated that if you were chosen for the honor of offering prayers in the temple like this, it’s the only time you’d be able to do it in your lifetime. One and done. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for Zachariah – so he is thinking that this is the apex of his ministry on earth.

[10] And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense. [11] And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. [12] And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. [13] But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. [14] And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, [15] for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. [16] And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, [17] and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”

[18] And Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” [19] And the angel answered him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. [20] And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.”

[21] And the people were waiting for Zechariah, and they were wondering at his delay in the temple. [22] And when he came out, he was unable to speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the temple. And he kept making signs to them and remained mute. [23] And when his time of service was ended, he went to his home.

Now it was expected that when Zachariah came out of the Temple, he was to stand in front of the people on the steps of the temple and offer to them a blessing. He was to bless them verbally before the Lord. So when he came out and couldn’t speak, he also couldn’t perform this blessing.  Finally we read…

[24] After these days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she kept herself hidden, saying, [25] “Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.”

This is the word of the lord. You may be seated. 

There are three different angles to this story we’ll examine:

  1. The first is the art of waiting on God’s timing
  2. The second is ultimate reality belongs to God
  3. The third is restoration for the glory of God

(waiting, reality, restoration)

The art of waiting on God’s timing

I’ve read in so many devotions and so many greeting cards now that the theme of “anticipation” has become a permanent part of my Christmas vocabulary. Growing up we even celebrated Christmas by doing an advent devotional as a family and putting ornaments on a “waiting tree.” 

To be perfectly candid, I didn’t really care for all the waiting and anticipation in the lead up to Christmas. As a kid it wasn’t the decorating and the devotional evenings that I anticipated, it was Christmas morning! Just in case my parents weren’t sure of my feelings, I’m sure I conveyed my righteous anticipation by asking a million questions about presents and refusing to sit still for any length of time.

Despite my mom’s noble efforts, it wasn’t until later that I began to appreciate the themes of “anticipation” and “waiting” and how they reflect the longing of Israel for their Messiah.

Here at the beginning of our advent season together is the perfect time to reflect on those themes, especially as we look at the lives of Zechariah and of Elizabeth. Focusing in a bit more on Zechariah this morning.  

Luke tells us a few important things about this couple: They were righteous, they were old, they were barren, and they were serving the Lord.

When you are young, there are certain dreams you have, which, being young, you assume will just fall into place as life goes on. There is a certain naiveté, ignorance, and maybe even a touch of arrogance about how we start out our lives as adults. But as time wears on, we begin to see that what we assumed about life, what we took for granted would just happen, doesn’t always fall into place the way we thought it might. Am I right?

Francis Schaeffer once said in the context of an essay on art, that for the Christian, our entire life is our greatest work of art, more than anything we ever do with our hands or produce with our minds.  I’m certain that many of you would agree with Samuel Rutherford that we owe a great deal to the file and the hammer of our Lord, but that process of refinement is painful. And perhaps no struggle is more personal and more painful for a married couple than the struggle of infertility.

Now it is not my purpose or intent to open fresh wounds this morning. But here at Veritas while we’ve praised God on many occasions for the great blessing of children in the church, we’ve also wanted to acknowledge and love on those in our church family here who haven’t yet been blessed with a child, or have walked a long and faith-testing road to parenthood. I can attest, with many others I’m certain, how encouraged and built up in the faith I have been by the godly example of the men and women of Veritas who have walked through the difficult seasons – not only of infertility, but of the loss of children. I praise God for your tenderhearted and steadfast example which brings glory to God.

So church we know a little about what these two people have gone through. But when we meet Zechariah and Elizabeth here they are older, and seemingly they have reached a point where giving birth to a child was a distant dream, one that has long since disappeared like a mirage in the desert of Judea.

Now Luke, our author, is a physician by trade, and a very meticulous author. And when he conveys a thing under the superintendence of the Holy Spirit, I believe we should take careful note.  He says that this couple was righteous. That they were following all the laws of the Lord.

As they waited. As they anticipated. As they dreamed, as they lived day in and day out – what did they do?  They obeyed.

Friends, this is the first thing our souls need to take away from this account: waiting on the Lord is active. It is not stultifying, it is not siloed, it is not paralyzed.

The Bible is replete with story after story of Godly men and women who waited for the Lord. David practically made it the theme of his life. As in Psalm 27:

Wait for the LORD;

                        be strong, and let your heart take courage;

                        wait for the LORD! Psalm 27:14

or in Psalm 25:

                        May integrity and uprightness preserve me,

                        for I wait for you. Psalm 25:21

Waiting is abiding. Abiding is obeying. Obeying is glorifying the Lord in our lives through word, heart, and deed.

If we want to know what it means to wait I can think of no better passage than John 15 where our Lord told us… “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” John 15:5

Notice that there is a “doing” here. Waiting on the Lord requires us to abide in His power while doing His work until He brings about His will for our lives in His own timing, by His own power for His own glory.

At this time in Israel’s history, there were thousands of people waiting for a savior. Para-military uprisings among the Jews were becoming more and more frequent, and the people longed for freedom as a nation once more.

This was a national anxiety felt in the hearts and realized in the daily lives of every Israelite.  Zechariah and Elizabeth were serving the Lord as they waited on Him, and as they prayed for a son and for freedom from Roman oppression.

Now…one of the tremendous marks of a life that waits upon the Lord is that of prayer. A life of waiting on Jesus is a life marked by prayer for the Father’s will to be done.

And in our passage today, we read that it was the angel Gabriel who visited Zechariah in the temple. Gabriel shows up at other points in redemptive history. In Daniel chapter 9 we read of how Daniel was praying to God on behalf of his people.  He was confessing the sins of Israel and appealing to God to rescue them from hands of their enemies and to restore them back to the land – because they were in exile in Babylon at this time. He ends his prayer like this:

Now therefore, O our God, listen to the prayer of your servant and to his pleas for mercy, and for your own sake, O Lord, make your face to shine upon your sanctuary, which is desolate. [18] O my God, incline your ear and hear. Open your eyes and see our desolations, and the city that is called by your name. For we do not present our pleas before you because of our righteousness, but because of your great mercy. [19] O Lord, hear; O Lord, forgive. O Lord, pay attention and act. Delay not, for your own sake, O my God, because your city and your people are called by your name.” Daniel 9:7–19

And after this Gabriel comes to him with a remarkable message. He says this:

“O Daniel, I have now come out to give you insight and understanding. [23] At the beginning of your pleas for mercy a word went out, and I have come to tell it to you, for you are greatly loved. Therefore consider the word and understand the vision.” Daniel 9:22b–23

I love this passage! As Daniel waits in exile he is praying, he is obeying the Lord, and the Lord wants him to know that he is “greatly loved.”  As you wait upon the Lord, as you pray to heaven for help in your distress, in your anxiety, in your pain, you, too, are greatly loved.

Waiting involved faithful and active obedience and prayer.

One of the most significant things about our passage today is that it exemplifies how God’s timing often brings us blessings that we could never have imagined. We pray for something over and over for years, but only later realize that in God’s mercy and timing, he withheld that gift in order for something more amazing.

While we may not understand – even in this lifetime – the full extent of what his timing means, we can realize that this is how he works in our waiting.  

Daniel was praying for the restoration of Israel and asking forgiveness for the sins of the people.  Gabriel gave Daniel the vision of 70 weeks – a vision even more amazing and of a higher magnitude than his mind could have asked for. A vision which anticipates not only the restoration of God’s people to their homeland, but how events would culminate in the arrival of a Prince. A prince who would be “cut off” in a sacrificial death for the sins of his people.

God delayed the birth of a son for Zechariah and Elizabeth because he had something special planned.

Daniel asked for a lot but got much more than he bargained for, and timing that he probably wasn’t expecting. So it was with Zechariah. And that is what we’ll see next…

The next thing we’ll consider is the nature of ultimate reality. Ultimate reality belongs to God.

As the priest on duty that day, Zechariah was to be offering prayers on behalf of the nation. So he is in the temple, in the outer area of the holy of holies – only the high priest went in the holy of holies and he did that only once a year – so he’s in this outer area praying. 

Gabriel arrives and tells Zechariah that his prayers have been heard. 

What prayers?

Our minds immediately go to the prayers he and Elizabeth must have prayed a thousand times over the years: prayers for a child.

But his prayers in the temple were more likely prayers for the salvation and redemption of Israel. As I mentioned before this is likely the most important day of Zechariah’s life until now, and he has been training for this, and would want to fulfill his priestly responsibility to the letter, and that meant offering prayers on behalf of the nation.

But the beautiful thing about the answer from the Lord is that it fulfills both the prayers of Zechariah and Elizabeth for a son, and the prayers of the nation for deliverance. In sending this couple a baby, God is sending the forerunner of the great Savior of Israel, and of the world!

John is to be the herald of heaven’s great King who would visit this world on a mission of salvation.

Only God can weave such amazing answers together. We read this and marvel at all God is doing in this story.  But was that the reaction of Zechariah?  No…

How does he react?

In verse 18 he questions Gabriel saying “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.”

From his words alone you cannot detect all of what is in this man’s heart. But apparently Gabriel knew enough to know that Zechariah had an unbelieving heart because he says “because you did not believe my words” (vs 20).

What seems strange about this reaction is that here is a man who had been praying for years and years for a son. Here is a man whose wife had longed for a child. How many conversations, how many knowing glances shared over the breakfast table? How many shared moments of pain and frustration?  And here – here is the answer to all his prayers. Decades worth of desires!  And he doesn’t believe. He sees the glory and power of the angel – there can be no doubt about the authenticity of this messenger’s identity. We read earlier, in fact, that Zechariah practically wet himself when the angel appeared! He knows this is a messenger from God!

It can’t be a proximity problem. He is not isolated from the faith community or the outward reminders of his heritage. In fact, he is surrounded by the trappings of his faith. He has the priestly garments on. He’s inside the temple. He’s only steps away from the holy of holies! 

Why the unbelief?  How is it possible that he can doubt!?

(PAUSE)

Let me tell you what I think is going on here. 

Zechariah’s “worlds are colliding”, to quote George Costanza.

His perception of reality, his construction of what is possible, is bound up in the plans, desires, and perspectives of his heart.

What a message for us today. Awash in post-modernism, we hear and read again and again that truth is what you make it. Reality is defined by your own perspective.  So important is this worldview that technologists are in a rush to give us power to create our own AI worlds accessible by simply strapping on a headset.

But ultimate reality belongs to God. You cannot make your own truth. You cannot create your own reality.

Live in your fairy land all you want, eventually that bubble will burst on the rocks of God’s sovereign truth, either in this life or the next.

Zechariah wasn’t a post-modernist by any stretch of the imagination. Yet his reality, his expectations, and the norms which he has set as the lens through which he saw how life works, how God works, were being brought into contact with the plans of the Lord of life and history.

I’ve found that the nature of my own perspective, when not governed by faith based in the Word of God, reveals itself as extraordinarily brittle in times of testing. This is what Zechariah was learning. He had set limits on what God could do; laws by which he expected God to act. And the weight of God’s plans were snapping the feeble bridge of his expectations.

Look at Gabriel’s reaction, he says “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news.”  He proclaims this gospel, this good news, and hears the words from Zechariah and he’s like “Wait. Wait…what!?” 

Gabriel is trying to reconcile what he lives day in and day out with this man’s reaction, and it just…doesn’t compute.  “Do you know who I am – I see your knees knocking, so you must have an idea.  I mean…I just came from the heavenly throne room…”

There is some discontinuity between what Gabriel knows as true and what Zechariah is willing to believe is true.

Of course, to us, in hindsight, Zechariah’s unbelief looks nonsensical against the backdrop of God’s revealed plans. But…

…we have to ask ourselves…What happens when our prayers aren’t answered in a way we expected? What happens when (in his mercy) God withholds the answer for years? How do we react when circumstances in our lives unfold in unexpected ways?

Do we look for the hand of Providence in the details of life?  Or do we recoil in bitterness and unbelief? 

We may be surrounded by the trappings of faith, and in this season that’s even more the case, and yet have such a contracted and minimized view of the power of God that we look at our lives and say “no…its hopeless. I’m a mess and there’s nothing that can fix this.”  Are we allowing our own narrow view of life’s road to hem in our perspective on God’s capabilities?

Friends, God does not simply stitch together the mess of our lives in order to salvage some kind of decent ending to the narrative.  He is busy in the details.  He is superintending all of reality. Upholding the world by the word of his power, he supervises and intercedes for those who he “greatly loves.”

It’s a wonderful blessing – a good thing – to be surrounded by the people of God and to regularly find ourselves here in this building. But let’s not let our surroundings, our culture, and our doubts construct an artificial view of God. A small view of God. A proud view of God that’s based on our own plans and objectives, rather than faith in his providence, timing, and power.

God’s word calls us to deeper waters: trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him and he will make straight your paths. (Prov 3:5)

Now let’s look past the reaction and to the heart of the message from Gabriel, and how it is “good news” – not only Zechariah, but the whole world.

Restoration for the glory of God

Remember how I said that after the priest would finish their prayers in the temple it was their job to go out and bless the people? Well, the Lord’s messenger puts the kibosh on that. It is as if God is saying “I will not have an unbelieving man speak to my people this day. Not today. Today is the beginning of a special new work.”

For years the people of Israel had been led by shepherds who Jesus would later describe as serpents and sons of Satan. But light is breaking through the darkness, and in a sign of things to come, every tongue will be stopped, and every eye will behold the majesty of Jesus.

Zechariah was a righteous man who stumbled into unbelief.

But this wasn’t to be the end for Zechariah. 

The message that Gabriel brought was “good news” – good news that went beyond the hopes and dreams of this righteous couple. Their son was born for a very specific mission.  Listen to the hints dropped by Gabriel.  Look again at verse 16…

And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, [17] and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared

That last line may be the most important. It echoes the words of the prophet Malachi, and indicates that their son John will prepare the people of Israel for someone – and that someone is their Messiah! 

Now as the story continues. Turn with me to verse 57 and we’ll read this together…

Luke 1:57–80

[57] Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. [58] And her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. [59] And on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child. And they would have called him Zechariah after his father, [60] but his mother answered, “No; he shall be called John.” [61] And they said to her, “None of your relatives is called by this name.” [62] And they made signs to his father, inquiring what he wanted him to be called. [63] And he asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And they all wondered. [64] And immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, blessing God. [65] And fear came on all their neighbors. And all these things were talked about through all the hill country of Judea, [66] and all who heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, “What then will this child be?” For the hand of the Lord was with him.

Zechariah was restored to speaking once again.

The long months which held him in mute frustration had also humbled him, and increased his faith, so that when the time came to declare before his friends and nearest relations what the will of the Lord would be for his son, his lips found themselves equal to the restored tenderness of his heart.

And in such a small village, this would have been a major event – especially given the circumstances surrounding John’s birth. Before the New Covenant, before Pentecost, God’s people did not have the gift of the Spirit permanently indwelling them. But this child had been filled by the Holy Spirit from before birth! He even leapt in Elizabeth’s womb when Mary came to visit.

Gabriel had said that all of this would happen according to God’s timing.

And I wonder how many moments in the intervening months Zechariah had pondered the timing of God in the events of his life and the life of his people.

His life has been blessed with a baby boy – one who Jesus would later call the greatest man ever born of a woman (Luke 7). Now able to speak, we read that, full of the Holy Spirit, the first thing that Zechariah did was sing out with the following words:

Look at verse 68…

[67] And his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied, saying,

            [68] “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,

                        for he has visited and redeemed his people

            [69] and has raised up a horn of salvation for us

                        in the house of his servant David,

            [70] as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,

            [71] that we should be saved from our enemies

                        and from the hand of all who hate us;

            [72] to show the mercy promised to our fathers

                        and to remember his holy covenant,

            [73] the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us

            [74]     that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies,

            might serve him without fear,

            [75]     in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.

            [76] And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;

                        for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,

            [77] to give knowledge of salvation to his people

                        in the forgiveness of their sins,

            [78] because of the tender mercy of our God,

                        whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high

            [79] to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,

                        to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Luke adds his own narrative note, so that we are prepared for what will come in the next part of this amazing story…

            [80] And the child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance to Israel.

Now, throughout church history we’ve called Zechariah’s song of praise and prophesy the Benedictus, which is simply the Latin translation for the first word he speaks: “blessed.”

Zechariah has been restored and his faith strengthened and he wants to give God glory. But more than that, God has filled him to deliver a message.  The good news that Gabriel announced 9 months prior was not simply that he and Elizabeth would have a son, but that God was sending his own Son, and that John’s role is to proclaim the coming of Israel’s Messiah! 

The day is almost at hand.  The wait is almost over. The promises made to David, Abraham, and the prophets of old would be kept.

Zechariah declares that God will be faithful to the promises he made to Abraham. Nations will be blessed. The seed of Abraham will continue in the adoption of people from every tribe, tongue, and nation into the family of God. And God will begin his work of re-creation and renewal by making men and women – his image bearers – into new creations in the model of his son Jesus Christ.

9 months prior in the temple Zechariah would have prayed for the salvation of Israel.

Here, inspired by the Spirit, he declares a salvation not linked to earthly political redemption or military conquest, but of spiritual redemption from sin. Verse 77 is key “to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins.” 

Zechariah says that without the light of life we are walking in the darkness and on the precipice of death’s door. He links light and life and peace directly with the forgiveness of sins and relational restoration with God.

For the people of Israel, certainly for Zechariah, the promises of God were coming into tighter focus, even as their own perspectives on God’s plans were widening.  

You might say that while the occupation of Rome was uppermost on the minds of Jews in his day, what Zechariah’s people really needed was a political solution of another magnitude. They had bigger problems. Diplomatic relations between themselves and the King of kings needed restoration. Zechariah says here that the solution was going to be provided in a “knowledge of salvation” by a “horn of salvation” – more specifically, in the strength of the unbreakable life of the embodied Word of knowledge: God’s own Son. (Acts 2:24 and John 1)

For those of us who have been in a season of waiting, a season where it seemed like our lives are in limbo, the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth offers not only comfort, but also a reorientation of our expectations, a reminder of who holds history in His hands, and an opportunity to repent.   

Zechariah was told that everything he had desired for both himself and his people was about to be fulfilled, and though he was found in unbelief, though his entire world was turned upside-down, God in His mercy restored Zechariah for His own glory.

Praise God that His plans for our lives do not stop at the door of our heart’s natural capacity to believe. Praise God that His mercy and providence does not wax and wane on the ebb tide of our emotions, and the short-sidedness of even our best-intentioned plans.

The beautiful thing that we see in the life of Zechariah is that he didn’t get everything he wanted the way he wanted in the time he wanted it. Praise God for that! Praise God for his withholding of the blessings we think we want now – even good things which we know are good things, God sometimes withholds in order to bring us into an even greater plan for our good and his Glory.

Let me mention to you a final word friends.

If you are finding yourself without hope in a season which is supposed to be all about hope, you’re in the right place. This is a message for you.

Anticipation is a theme running throughout the Christmas season, and this seasonal slogan finds its origin in Zechariah’s day (and before) when the people of Israel were anticipating a Messiah, a leader, a savior.

But God being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us did not rescue us from political oppression or social unrest. He rescued us from ourselves. He rescued us from His wrath. He rescued us from our sins so that we may be brought into his kingdom, into his family.  He did this in his own time. And it looked nothing like what was expected.

Friends we no longer have to wait for salvation. The wait is over.  The great message of Christmas is that salvation has arrived! The Sunrise from on high came to live amongst us. He made himself the lowest of low in order to raise up those who were sitting in darkness. As Isaiah says, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone” (Is. 9:2).

That light, that sunrise from on high, is Jesus. Jesus Christ, the son of God, came to rescue a fallen race – you and I no longer wait for salvation – we can receive that now.

I love the gospel of John. He begins his gospel by declaring that the Word of God, the light of the world has come to save men. This is what he says:

The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. [10] He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. [11] He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. [12] But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, [13] who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. John 1:9–13

Christmas is the celebration that our waiting is over, we can have full forgiveness of sins, by believing that Jesus is who he says he is. That celebration, which begins with our reconciliation to God through faith in Jesus, will be consummated when the great King returns in his time with glory and splendor.

It’s my prayer that you are encouraged by the story of Zechariah, and how God overcame his unbelief, to use him as an instrument of praise and glory. He desires to do the same thing in your life and mine.

Introduction to Revelation: Part 5

Today we looked at the classic premil and dispensational premil views of the millennium period spoken of in Revelation 20. I also spoke briefly about the nature of dispensationalism, and its hermeneutic. In my notes (below) I have given a slightly expanded voice to my concerns and why it matters to us today. I just can’t stress enough how important it is that we get our hermeneutics right, and I believe that when we do, our Bibles will lead us away from dispensational views of Revelation, and, well, anything…

Enjoy!

PreMillenialism – Historic

There are two kinds of Premils, the first is historic or “classical” and has been around since the early church fathers (ancients referred to this as chiliasm). The second is dispensational which came into being in the last 200 years. I’ll start with historic premillennialism.

Grudem says:

According to this viewpoint, the present church age will continue until, as it nears the end, a time of great tribulation and suffering comes on the earth. After that time of tribulation at the end of the church age, Christ will return to earth to establish a millennial kingdom….some premillennialists take this to be a literal one thousand years, and others understand it to be a symbolic expression for a long period of time. During this time, Christ will be physically present on earth in his resurrected body, and will reign as King over the entire earth.

John Frame sums up what happens next:

They (the early church fathers who were premil) taught that at the end of the present age, Jesus will come and raise believers to be with him. Then he will reign upon the earth for a thousand years, or some other long period of time. During this time (and not until then), Satan is bound in the bottomless pit. At the end of this time, God will release Satan, and at his instigation some on earth will rebel against Jesus (Revelation 20:3, 7-8). But the Lord will put down the revolt and raise all the dead for final judgment. Then comes the new heavens and new earth.

Therefore, according to this viewpoint, Christians will indeed endure a great time of persecution – they will not be raptured away from this tribulation prior to the Lord’s second coming.

Premillenialsim – Dispensational

The dispensational version of premil belief is “more recent (nineteenth century) and more complicated.”[i]

John Frame sets up the view for us:

The key to understanding the dispensational view is the idea that Jesus actually returns twice, making three times altogether that Jesus comes to earth. His first coming was, of course, his conception in the womb of Mary 2000 years ago. At his second coming, at the end of this age, he comes secretly and raptures believers to be with him. The rapture is described in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17, where Paul says:

For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.

This is what you read about or have seen in those Left Behind movies with Kirk Cameron (and now Nicholas Cage). As Wayne Grudem notes, “This return is thought to be a secret return of Christ to take believers out of the world.”[ii]

Then there will be a period of intense tribulation – dispensationalists call this the “Great Tribulation” – which will last 7 literal years. Some hold that the rapture of the church will occur mid-way through the tribulation and that the last 3.5 years of the tribulation (seen to be the worst years) will be avoided by the church.

After the literal 7-year tribulation period Christ will come again (for a third time), this time to usher in His kingdom here on earth.

Grudem says:

During this seven-year period of tribulation, many of the signs that were predicted to precede Christ’s return will be fulfilled. The great ingathering of the fullness of the Jewish people will occur, as they trust Christ as their messiah. In the midst of great suffering there will also be much effective evangelism, especially carried out by the new Jewish Christians. At the end of the tribulation, Christ will then come back with his saints to reign on the earth for 1,000 years. After this millennial period there will be a rebellion, resulting in the final defeat of Satan and his forces, and then will come the resurrection of unbelievers, the last judgment, and the beginning of the eternal state.[iii]

That is their system in a nutshell. But both Frame (leans postmil) and Grudem (a classic premil guy) wisely note that one of the things that makes this form of premil unique is the way they separate the Jews from the church, basically saying that these are two separate and distinct peoples with two separate and distinct futures. To me this is one of the most unbiblical features of the dispensational system.

Grudem additionally notes that, “Another characteristic of pretribulational premillenialism is its insistence on interpreting biblical prophecies ‘literally where possible.’ This especially applies to prophecies in the Old Testament concerning Israel. Those who hold this view argue that those prophecies of God’s future blessing to Israel will yet be fulfilled among the Jewish people themselves; they are not to be ‘spiritualized by finding their fulfillment in the church.’”[iv]

Issues with the Dispensational View

I believe each view has strengths and weaknesses. However, I admit openly that I loathe the dispensational view (not those who believe it, but the view itself) for its absolutely wacky and misleading hermeneutic. I single it out because it’s the most popularized view of the church today, and many in the church don’t know of the alternatives.

The two main distinctives of this view are its futurist bent (i.e. with regard to the millennium and the tribulation period), and its separation between the future destinies of Jews and the Church respectively.

Much of these issues stem from their “literal” hermeneutic. To ignore context, symbolism, figures of speech, allegory, and word pictures is to throw out common sense and discard sensus literalis to the dustbin.

As it concerns the “spiritualizing” of the promises to Israel and those promises being fulfilled (at least partially) in the church. It’s important to realize that our framework for understanding the role of the church with regard to its fulfillment of OT promises is given to us by the Apostle Paul who not only called Christ “Israel” but also called the church the “true Israel of God” (Gal. 6:16) and said that the church – the elect – were Abraham’s offspring In Romans 4 and Romans 9 Paul says that it’s the elect by the promise of God who are Abraham’s offspring). This same apostle also maintained that the Jews would eventually be grafted back in to the church (Romans 11). He used the comparison to a wild olive tree. He never spoke of two trees, only one with the two different branches. Additionally, the Bible doesn’t speak of two brides of Christ, only one – the church. Are we to think that the church is Christ’s bride and that the Jews are, well, just another group hanging around on the outside of the eternal marriage?

There are further consequences – major consequences – not the least of which is a complete misunderstanding of Jeremiah 31:31 and subsequent (and necessary) disregard for Hebrews 8. If this passage only applies to Israel in the future, then the new covenant hasn’t been ushered in, and we aren’t a part of it. You can see how important it is to get the hermeneutic right when we read our Bibles. I will address this momentarily.

Under the dispensational hermeneutic the future will also look, well, very odd. There will be rebellion after Christ has physically reigned on earth for 1,000 years – which means there will still be sin even though Christ will be here on earth – so apparently we’ll have to wait awhile for that problem to be solved. Also, if there’s sin in the millennium, why not death? Sin leads to physical decay and death, so how is this to be dealt with?

Needless to say there are issues with every viewpoint – because we can’t perfectly understand the future and what God has for His people. That’s why He’s God and we’re not! I don’t believe we’re meant to know every detail of the future and how things will exactly play out.

Why this Matters to Us Today 

I mentioned Jeremiah 31:31 above because I believe that dispensationalists inadvertently undervalue the new covenant and the victory Christ achieved on the cross. Again, I don’t think this is their aim, but it’s the consequence of their hermeneutic. This actually really matters to us today because this view of the Bible has consequences for how we view our own salvation, and previous promises that we claim to be ours right now.

In recent years some within their camp have realized there are issues with creating such a dichotomy between the church and Israel. This is why some now call themselves ‘Progressive Dispensationalists’ because they are starting to see that many of these promises made with the “House of Israel” in the OT are actually being fulfilled in the church – chief among them is the promise of a New Covenant. In Jeremiah 31:31-34 we read of a prophecy concerning the new covenant[v] that I’m sure many of you have read or heard before. Listen to the words of Jeremiah, made with the “House of Israel” but now being fulfilled in His church:

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, [32] not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. [33] For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. [34] And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jeremiah 31:31-34)

Why am I bringing this up now in the context of our study on Revelation? Because how we view the Bible in Jeremiah (and other books) has an affect on how we view and read Revelation. Having a literalistic hermeneutic not only ruins Revelation, it stultifies and obscures other vital prophetic passages, and the Jeremiah passage is just a great example of this. I said earlier that “hermeneutics matter”, this is just one example of why that is so, and why I want to caution anyone who holds to a dispensational view of this book.

 

Footnotes 

[i] Frame, Systematic Theology, Pg. 1089

[ii] Grudem, Systematic Theology, Pg.’s 1112-1113

[iii] Grudem, Pg. 1115

[iv] Grudem, Pg. 1116

[v] Bruce Ware is in this camp and in his Systematic Theology I lectures at SBTS he gives the Jeremiah 31:31-34 passage as one of the glaring passages which simply can’t be gotten around.

Weekend Reading: August 15, 2014

Happy Friday!  I’m glad to be back on U.S. soil this week, and am enjoying catching up on all that is going on here in America and with my family as well.  I’ve collected a series of interesting articles, interviews, and more for you to take a look at as you coast into the weekend.

Also, if you’d like to read about my adventure in Israel this past week, you can see pictures and read about what I did here on this blog. Each day is listed below:

Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, Day 4, Day 5, Day 6, Day 7

Now for your weekend reading…

Islam is on the rise here in America...only trouble is there aren’t enough Imam’s do lead worship…

Nice little article citing three traits of kids who don’t grow up and leave the church.

Fantastic perspective on the Ebola outbreak and the choice to fly the Christian missionary back to the US for treatment.

There’s been a lot going on oversees right now – especially in the Ukraine, Iraq, and Israel.  If you didn’t catch this story about a helicopter crash FYI, also, a great little interview that Joel C. Rosenberg did with an Iraqi pastor is here (h/t Lisa Wenzel).  And these folks list very clearly 5 things you can do for Christians in Iraq. 

Also, along similar lines, Jonathan Parnell has a column at DG about loving and hating your enemies. I’m not sure he is very clear in his writing, or that he really gets to the heart of the issue in the final analysis, but found it an interesting conversation starter nonetheless.

Speaking of foreign policy…Hillary Clinton bashes the Obama administration...and is right on target with her assessments…too bad no one will take her seriously. And FP.com has a smart look at why the administration is failing oversees. 

The folks at CARM, a Christian apologetics organization, dismantled Joyce Meyer’s false teaching a while back and I finally got to read through this a bit.  Pretty good reference.  If you’ve been reading or following her, well, let me just say there’s plenty of other good teaching out there that isn’t heretical for you to enjoy!

Speaking of false teachers, Tim Challies did an entire series on these people, and came to a handful of conclusions based on what he saw across the spectrum of his research.  A few traits stood out…

Pastor Challies also had a succinct little post about ‘Why We Love to Read’

And the guys at Kuyperian Commentary have continued their series that looks at tattoos. 

Also, I stumbled on this really interesting info-graphic that details how early each early morning TV show host gets us, and what their morning routine looks like.

Speaking of off-the-wall stuff, DG has a post about nude TV…yes, you read that right…

That is it!  Enjoy the weekend!

PJW

Israel Day 3: It is the Heart that Matters

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It’s 6am here in Jerusalem.  I’m taking stock of what I’ve seen, heard, and the conversations I’ve had on this trip thus far and I am struck to the point of tears this morning at one simple reality: It is the heart that matters above all else in the affairs of man.

Yesterday we met with Jerusalem Post journalist Herb Keinon who offered an insiders view of Prime Minister Netanyahu from his years covering Israeli politics, and traveling oversees and around the country with him.  Then we visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum here in Jerusalem.

The Yad Vashem experience was led by a tour guide who asked a lot of questions in order to convey her ideas and the thrust of the museum – perhaps it was just her style, but it was a good way to open up the lid a little and get people thinking about the deeper issues surrounding not only the Holocaust, but hatred and killing in general. The questions that summed it all up were: How could human beings do this to other human beings? What is it that happened inside their minds and hearts? What is the genesis of this grotesque defect? What can be done to stop it in the future?

Hold that thought…

After Yad Vashem, we had lunch with Brig. General for the IDF Reserves Nitzan Nuriel.  The lunch was nothing short of fantastic.  Nuriel is an amazingly candid and heroic man.  His vision of survival, optimism, and hope for future Israeli generations was clearly what surfaced during our time together.  He exuded strength, good naturedness, and resolve.  In short, this was one of the greatest leaders I have ever met in person.

During our conversation with the General, we asked many questions.  The dialogue was great – as it has been all week here in Israel.  And Nuriel seemed to echo what Keinon had said earlier in the morning, namely that long term peace and long term solutions to living in peace are elusive, and frankly probably not the way to focus all one’s efforts.  Living life to the fullest and best in-between conflicts is what counts, said Nuriel. What do we do with that time?  In the context of why he has hope for the future, Keinon put it this way, “Israel is remarkably good at finding solutions to short term problems.”

When you approach the problems these men are describing about Hamas, the Palestinian Authority, Lebanon, Iran, Syria, the border with Jordan, and on and on, you come to quickly realize there is no easy solution. They are dealing with people who are not playing by the same rules.  A member of Hamas has one goal in mind: exterminate the Jews. If they die trying, so much the better – they aren’t afraid to die, because of all they’ve learned about their supposed rewards in the afterlife.  YET, many palestinians who live in Gaza or the West Bank simply aren’t as militant.  They want a life of their own, and they are people with rights as well.  Israelis, more than anyone I know, understand the fundamental gritty truth that Palestinians, Muslims, Arabs etc. are human beings with families, lives, and souls.

The rock and the hard place are coming into focus, are they not? How do you live next to people and sit across the negotiating table with people who want to kill you because you’re a Jew.  They are completely unreasonable – they are terrorists.  Yet, there are millions and millions of men, women, and children whose lives are at stake and if you come from a Jewish background, there’s no way you’re going to wantonly kill innocents in any battle – even to defend your own people.  This is a nation of people defined by the holocaust, and that means it has been indelibly marked on them the fact that all people are human beings – just as they are.  That is one of the impressions, by the way, that one learns from Yad Vashem.

Making it all Make Sense

In the evening we had the privilege of meeting with three start-up businessmen and women who were success stories here in Israel.  It was a great dinner at a fun Moroccan restaurant in the Center City portion of Jerusalem.  As fun as it was to meet them, I was even more moved by a meeting that occurred just prior with a Palestinian Christian Pastor. I won’t tell you his name because he’s suffered enough persecution and I’d like to protect his privacy.

This young pastor was about my age – mid 30’s – and is on the front lines of spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ to Palestinians – Muslims.  He has been beaten, had his church bombed, had his friends harassed and on and on.  But he still continues to preach.  What does he emphasize?  Loving your enemy. Why? Because this is what Jesus taught, yes, but how is he able to do it?  Because His heart has been changed radically by God. 

And…his ministry is flourishing. People are coming to Christ.  Interestingly enough, it is this idea of “love” and an understanding of mutual humanity that bridges gaps on an interpersonal basis even among secular Jews and Palestinians.  The entrepreneurs we listened to last night confirmed that as well.  But the difference between common decency and the radical nature of Jesus’ love is that one promotes harmony until the other party wrongs us, while the other – the love of Jesus – helps us love people while they wrong us.

Why did men mass murder other men and women?  Why do members of Hamas blindly hate and target Jews – sacrificing their own citizens in order to do this?  These questions are deep, but not as deep as the answers to how these problems are solved.  If we acknowledge the depth of our sin and fallenness as humans, that is the starting point.  That is the obvious answer to Yad Vashem.  But what is the answer to the second question?  How is this nature overcome?  How is hatred and ignorance overcome?  By the love of Jesus Christ.  

This is a supernatural love, an alien love, a love not found naturally in the corrupt hearts of man. It is also a gracious love, a love which God has shed abroad in the hearts of men and women who share a faith in Christ.  For those who are Christians, we need to understand that the ultimate answers to the difficult questions of our time both here and at home, begin not at the military, political, or diplomatic level, but in the hearts of mankind.

Pictures from Day 3 below:

Israel day 2

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We started the day today hearing from professor Reuven Hazan from Hebrew University. Mr. Hazan gave us an overview of the political/government system here in Israel. It was extremely insightful and very enjoyable. Israel is a Parliamentary democracy and, unlike the U.S., elects it’s governing body nationally and not by districts – in fact, the names of candidates aren’t on the ballot, only the party names. Vote for a party and you get the whole ball of wax – every candidate that the party chooses to install.

After each election the parties are allowed to send to parliament a certain number of candidates based on the percentage of what their party received from voters nationally.

After this morning session we toured the old city which included many of the holy sites you’ve likely heard of before.  These included the temple mount, the wailing wall (western wall), the church of the holy sepulcher and the room Jesus was believed to have eaten his last supper in.

For me, walking up the temple mount, knowing that Jesus had walked on those stones, and taught in that place, and that Peter had likely delivered his sermon in Acts 2 from that spot, was indescribable.  The best way to describe it would probably be to coming home.  A tremendous peace and amazement that lay unsettled in my gut – until the prayer at the western (wailing) wall whereupon I felt like for the first time in my trip I had met God in this place.  Mostly I attribute this to taking in all that I had seen, and then getting to come in prayer to the Lord.  When one pastor asked what I had prayed about, I told him that my entire mindset was dominated by thoughts of “come back quickly, Lord.”  I say that because there is an overwhelming sense – for me at least there was – that this is where it all took place.  And you want it to happen again.  You want Him to come again and to consummate His kingdom.

All the graves alongside the road leading up to the old city with the Mt. of Olives on the left etc. are there because they want a “front row seat” as our tour guide put it, to the coming of the Messiah —- now jokingly he said that the Jews first question will be “this your first time to Jerusalem?”  LOL!   For me, that resonated on a deeper level.  You see this wide swath of grave stones/head stones there laid out at the base of the Kidron as it wraps around toward the valley of Gehena and you realize they’re like seats in a movie theatre waiting for the great act of world history to sweep across the planes of that desert region and call them up to either judgment or to life everlasting.  Regardless, this is going to be the “place to be” so they say.

All of this sense, this feeling, comes to a nexus at the wall – at the time of prayer.  And needless to say it is very special.

We had several meetings after this.  One with a humanitarian activist from the Palestinian perspective, another with the leader of the Labor party opposition in the Knesset, and lastly we had dinner with an amazing journalist who is an Arab, Muslim, Palestinian, Israeli.  Crazy combination!  But that Palestinian perspective has been interesting.  Even the Palestinians we spoke with are against the Hamas, they think of Hamas as a terrorist group, and think of Barak Obama and John Kerry as closely aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood – at at the very best, empowering the Muslim Brotherhood!

Despite this sentiment toward Obama and Kerry, the Israelis and Palestinians we have met have been very very hospitable toward Americans and have nothing but good things to say about our country in general.  In fact, there hasn’t been an elected official, professor, journalist or expert of any kind that has not gone out of their way to thank us for coming at this time to show solidarity with Israel.  I can’t begin to describe how amazing it is to receive that kind of message from these men and women who have their lives in danger from terrorists every day.

Now, some of you have asked about my safety, and many are praying for me – thank you!  I want you all to know I’m safe, and couldn’t be enjoying this time more if I tried.  We’ve talked openly with people on the street, and because there has been a ceasefire for over 24 hours now (observed), we’re in good shape.  No rocket sirens thus far.

I’m pasting some pictures below of what I saw today.  This is only a sample, of course, but hopefully you’ll get a sense for what we saw and did today.  It was an amazing day.  The Israelis, I am learning, are a very courageous people.  Their political system is diverse, they have a unique outlook on life, they are surrounded by enemies, and they’re a beacon of freedom and morality in this part of the world.  It makes all the sense in the world, therefore, to stand by them in their efforts to not only exist as a nationstate (something Hamas’ charter puts them diametrically opposed to), but to thrive and to lead this part of the world out of the darkness of terror and radical Islam.

Several more amazing days in front of me.  If I went into everything I learned in each session and at every stop, these blogs would be way too long!  But needless to say, this trip is so well rounded that one cannot come away without a very thorough understanding of the geopolitical, religious, historical, moral, and military significance of this place.

Until tomorrow…Soli Deo Gloria!

The Last Super
The Last Super

Dome of the Rock, Temple Mount, Mount of Olives
Dome of the Rock, Temple Mount, Mount of Olives

The Temple Mount
The Temple Mount

Church of the Holy Sepulcher
Church of the Holy Sepulcher

 

Israel day 1

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This is day one of my AIEF (American Israeli Education Foundation) trip. I’m typing this from the plane (no internet yet on this Boeing 777 – only four craft in their 777 fleet have wifi…seriously) and we haven’t yet landed. It’s 9:45am eastern and we didn’t take off right away as scheduled due to a problem with the plane not wanting to accept fuel – obviously that wasn’t very obliging of their aircraft…So we switched planes. The result was a relaxing 2+ hour delay in Newark’s very nice airport. Now that we are on the way and somewhat rested, the anticipation for the day is beginning to build.

Most of this first day will be spent traveling and getting settled in. So not much to report. But the group of folks in traveling with (13 of us I believe) is a great and diverse group of men and (1) women. Mostly people from the Midwest who grew up with cold winters, fall football, and Christian faith backgrounds.

The several pastors who came with us include Tim Throckmorton, a fellow Ohioan, who has been my seating companion on each leg of our trip this far. Tim is from the Circleville area and pastors a church of about 500 folks.

There are also several politicos along for the adventure. My good friend Gregg Keller is on the trip. Gregg is a Missouri boy, and got his big break in politics working for former U.S. Senator Jim Talent.

I’m hoping to be able to share some of the journey here as we go. All my posts will come after events or the day following, for security reasons. Some will simply be pictures and others a mix (so long as the app I’m using doesn’t flake out on me!).

UPDATE: 30 min until Tel Aviv (from the journal, transposed)

The sense from all the men I’ve talked to on our trip is that this is a once in a lifetime/bucket list type of trip. A real privilege.

Of course the accommodations and hospitality are all first class, so in a superficial sense that is what is meant. But in a deeper sense, everyone knows that soon they will be walking on ground walked on by their Savior. And what that may feel like is yet unknown.

All Christians long for the Day He returns, and we feel and sense this desire from within us from God’s Spirit. So I wonder if there is some of this sense coming alive in our small party. As if setting foot in Jerusalem and Galilee were going to bring His Day and His presence nearer. The sense perhaps can be likened to that great joy one feels when a friend is born again. A touch of eternity is nearby…

Humans are designed for more than the temporal. We are beings created for an eternal God. When one comes alive from the dead it is a reminder of the eternal, the weightiness of these realities is more tangible to us in those moments.

So also, perhaps, we glimpse what the Spirit is reminding us of as we contemplate Israel, and that is namely this: we are here for a purpose, on a mission, grounded in what happens on that Hill outside the city.

And though seeing it will be wonderful, the reality is that the it is the Spirit that is the guarantee, and setting foot in Israel doesn’t change that. All a Christian need do is open the Pages and read.

And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us…and we have seen His glory…

Until the next post…
Soli Deo Gloria

PJW

Landing in Tel Aviv
Landing in Tel Aviv

The Tempting of Jesus

So tonight I get to teach a Bible Study on the Temptation of Jesus from Luke 4.  This has been a rewarding little study, and I decided to post my informal notes below.  They aren’t as well organized as I would have them be, but hopefully they are helpful and edifying for you as the long weekend awaits!

PJW

The Temptation of Jesus

Luke 4:1-15

Couple points on the first 15 verses to contemplate before we examine each verse individually:

  1. Satan offered Jesus a kingdom without a cross – later when peter says that surely Jesus wouldn’t die, Jesus replied by calling him Satan and rebuking him! The way of the messiah is the way of the suffering servant.
  2. Jesus was fully man – only a man (a human being) could be tempted (Hebrews 2:17-18).
  3. Christ is our supreme example. This is true in three ways:
    1. Jesus used Scripture to shore himself up in great distress and temptation
    2. Jesus knew the Bible and its context backwards and forwards
    3. Jesus did all things “in the Spirit” even when it would have been much easier to abandon all hope and faith in the Father
  4. Where Israel failed in the wilderness, Jesus succeeded. Jesus isn’t merely a supreme example to us here; what we see here is that He is the only Righteous One and the true Israel.

There are a great many parallels with Israel and the wilderness that we’ll see pop up here as we examine this passage more. But I want to first read a few of the wilderness passages of Isarel before we get into the text so that we have in our minds what was going on here in the OT in order for the clarity of the typology to shine through as it ought.

The Lord delivered Israel from Egypt with amazing wonders and might:

But the LORD has taken you and brought you out of the iron furnace, out of Egypt, to be a people of his own inheritance, as you are this day. (Deuteronomy 4:20)

“It was not the Israelites’ moral virtue that caused the Lord to save them from Egyptian bondage; he delivered them because of his mercy and love, which were undeserved and unmerited” (Schreiner, Biblical Theology, Pg. 35). “Israel’s liberation represented their redemption and testified to the Lord’s love for his people” (Schreiner, Biblical Theology, Pg. 33).

Despite all of this, the people of Israel rebelled:

…in the wilderness, where you have seen how the LORD your God carried you, as a man carries his son, all the way that you went until you came to this place.’ [32] Yet in spite of this word you did not believe the LORD your God, [33] who went before you in the way to seek you out a place to pitch your tents, in fire by night and in the cloud by day, to show you by what way you should go. (Deuteronomy 1:31-33)

God gave them a gracious covenant, yet the covenant that Moses received on Mt. Sinai, while gracious, revealed a major defect – and that defect was not with the law itself, but with the people of Israel whose hearts were not transformed by the covenant. This fact, and the sacrifices which provided a type of atonement which never cleansed the conscience (see Heb. 10), all pointed forward to the need for a Savior and a Sacrifice that would cleanse God’s chosen people from their sin and restore the fellowship that was obviously breached by that (aforementioned) sin.

The people of Israel failed miserably in the wilderness, but where they failed, Jesus would succeed. Thus we see that at the heart of this passage is the heart of the gospel: it is only by the righteousness of Christ that we are justified.  Only through his perfect obedience are we redeemed and reconciled to God.  This passage, while preparatory for his ministry and mission (which we’ll learn more about in verses 16-30), is also emblematic of his whole mission in that he overcame the world in order that we could bask in his victory, and that He is submissive to whatever God had in mind for Him.  His short life and death was all that was necessary to please God on our behalf, and reconciled a dying world to their Creator.

4:1-2 And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness [2] for forty days, being tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing during those days. And when they were ended, he was hungry.

Some versions day that the Spirit “drove” Him out into the wilderness. The ESV here describes the action as a “leading”, and I like the forcefulness of the former, but the latter shows how personal the Holy Spirit is. Such language surely gives us reason to believe that of the Spirit is not an impersonal force, but a person and indeed a person of great power – this is God.

Secondly, Jesus is described here as “full of the Holy Spirit” – and in this way He is the model for how every follower of Christ ought to be. We all need to be “full of the Holy Spirit”, and although its probably talking about the fact that Jesus possessed the Holy Spirit, still the sense of it seems to be that He was walking in the Spirit, He was abiding in the Spirit, He was listening to the Spirit. And it was the Spirit who would equip Jesus fully for His mission and ministry here on earth.

Listen to what I’ve copied down (in multiple places in my notes) from Geerhardus Vos who explains the role of the Spirit in the life of our Lord: “Our Lord needed the Spirit as a real equipment of his human nature for the execution of his Messianic task. Jesus ascribed all his power and grace, the gracious words, the saving acts, to the possession of the Spirit (Matt. 12:28; Luke 4:18; Acts 10:36-38). And, through qualifying him in this manner for achieving his messianic task, the Spirit laid the foundation for the great Pentecostal bestowal of the Spirit afterwards, for this gift was dependent on the finished work.”

It was Jesus’ submission to the Spirit that brought Him into the wilderness in the first place. God had a plan for Jesus here, and Jesus was willing to follow the Father’s plan to the enth degree. The fact that He was tempted at all, as I mention above, shows that He was indeed man – a real human being.

For as Hebrews 2 says:

Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, [15] and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. [16] For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham. [17] Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. [18] For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted. (Hebrews 2:14-18)

So God had a purpose in all of this, and that purpose was to deliver us from slavery to Satan and to destroy Satan’s power over us. He had to do this because His desire was not only to save us from sin, but to give us His own righteousness. Hence, the doctrine of double imputation (we give him our sin and he gives us his righteousness).

Geldenhuys says, “As real Man, Jesus could really be tempted, and from His childhood days until the end of His earthly career He was exposed to all the temptations that every human being has to contend with – except, however, those temptations that come from within as a result of the inward original taint or of the influence of former sins.”

Now, before examining the following verses, I’d just lastly note here that Jesus was in the wilderness for 40 days. Perhaps there’s a reason for that number, it is the number of completeness and of fullness. When Moses was on the mountain in Sinai with God, he was there for 40 days and didn’t eat anything during that time either. Also, Israel was in the desert for 40 years. So there seems to be a theme here, once again, that where Israel failed, Jesus would succeed.

4:3-4 The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” [4] And Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone.’”

Interestingly, Satan uses a similar ploy as the one he did in the Garden (of Eden) by questioning the Jesus’ relationship to God. In the garden he had questioned the veracity of God’s word when he said, “You will not surely die” (vs. 4). Here he says “if” you are the Son of God – He questions the relationship and says that Jesus has to prove Himself by doing a miracle on his terms. He’s basically saying that there’s no need for Jesus to deal with this hunger/this trial anymore. Stop waiting on the Lord and just make things happen on your own! Stop living in the Spirit and just use the powers you have as the Son of God. Stop doing things God’s way and live at the end of my cattle prod!

Yet Jesus succeeds where Adam and Even failed – as the ‘Second Adam’ He “is obedient to God in a way that other people – including Adam – are not” (Bock).

And Jesus’ response to this first recorded temptation is essentially that it is more important for Him to wait for the word of the Lord than to eat before the appointed time has arrived. He cares more about His spiritual well being than His physical well being. His flesh is subordinate to His spirit.

This is implied when you realize the rest of the verse he’s quoting goes like this…

And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD. (Deuteronomy 8:3)

In other words, the trial in the desert for Israel was a humbling experience to show them that they needed to rely on God and thirst after His word. We need to be hungrier for the Word of God than for chocolate ice cream on a hot summer day!

4:5-8 And the devil took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, [6] and said to him, “To you I will give all this authority and their glory, for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. [7] If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” [8] And Jesus answered him, “It is written, “‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.’”

Ironies abound here, don’t they! But before we look at that, we have to as this: what kind of kingdom is Satan offering? A worldly kingdom. And the price for that kingdom is not simply a one-time act, but a complete defection from God’s purposes. As Darrell Bock so rightly comments:

Often the temptation is describes as if all Jesus had to do was hit his knees once and all would be his. But he challenge represents a defection from God, and such a defection would have lifetime consequences. Jesus was to give the devil the respect and honor due to God alone. For by bowing down before the devil, Jesus would be accepting his authority and sovereignty. The meaning of the offer was clear: if Jesus would given Satan his heart and bow down before him, Satan would let Jesus rule. It was a high price to ask for an empty claim, but the response would reveal where Jesus’ priorities were.

So essentially, Satan is offering Jesus a kingdom without a cross.

Perhaps Satan didn’t understand this at the time, but “The cross was the pathway to his (Jesus’) exaltation and victory. He has been lifted up and glorified through the cross. Suffering has become the pathway to glory,” says Tom Schreiner (Biblical Theology, Pg. 640).

And this is why we see the close tie between what is going on here and later when Jesus rebukes Peter and actually calls him “Satan” because Peter’s thinking mirrored Satan’s:

From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. [22] And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” [23] But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” (Matthew 16:21-23 ESV)

What is Jesus’ primary accusation here? It is that Peter is thinking in the flesh with worldy thoughts. His perspective was not heavily, was it?   Those who are in the world think like the world and are under the rule of this world’s ruler (Satan). But Jesus here in Luke 4 called out Satan’s false choice. Satan couldn’t offer Him a kingdom of any substance! God was the one who owned everything. And because Jesus is the Son of God, this is tantamount to Satan trying to give Jesus what Jesus already owns!

To apprehend this illusion of a kingdom, all Jesus had to worship Satan! No big deal right? Satan was way over his skis on this one! But you see here what he’s doing – he’s pretending that he’s equal with God (which is what got him tossed out of heaven in the first place) and can offer Jesus what it was that Jesus wanted – or what was really rightfully His (a kingdom)!

The arrogance of it! Geldenhuys is right to say, “…the Devil cannot deliver the world’s kingdoms into the power of whosoever he chooses, as he declared in the second temptation. God Himself is, in the final instance, the establisher and dispenser of worldly power.”

Now, of course Satan has been given some power, but all of that power comes from God. He is only allowed to do what he does because God allows it. He is not an absolute ruler of this world, and if there was ever a question about that one only need look at “Jesus’ expulsion of demons” (Block) to see that view doesn’t hold water.

Jesus could well have said “actually since I’m the one who made all this, I’m the one who will be worshiped.” See for example:

For every beast of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills. [11] I know all the birds of the hills, and all that moves in the field is mine. (Psalm 50:10-11 ESV)

For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. [17] And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (Colossians 1:16-17 ESV)

When we see Satan’s offer here to Jesus we see his and his temptations for what they are – lies, and cheap imitations (illusions, actually) of the real thing!

This reaction from Jesus isn’t what Satan is used to. It seems that today the people in our world gladly worship their idols in hopes that they will offer great satisfaction. They all will do whatever it takes to get an earthly kingdom. But sadly idolatry always leads to slavery and not great freedom and power.

This week Tim Challies sent out a great riff off of CS Lewis’ famous quote about mud pies and the beach. This encapsulates well what our perspectives often are versus what it means to have the mind of Christ:

It is one of C.S. Lewis’ most powerful and most enduring illustrations: An ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. It is a vivid illustration and one that is simple enough to see in the lives of other people—those people who settle for lesser pleasures when the greatest of all pleasures awaits. But I, at least, find it far more difficult to see in my own life. You may find it just as difficult.

  • It is worth asking: What is your mud pie?
  • Is it money? You will never have a bank account rich enough to satisfy you.
  • Is it food? You will never have a meal filling enough to satisfy you.
  • Is it pleasure? You will never have a sexual experience gratifying enough to satisfy you.
  • Is it popularity? You will never have enough friends to satisfy you.
  • Is it stuff? You will never accumulate enough possessions to satisfy you.
  • Is it pornography? You will never find a person naked enough to satisfy you.
  • Is it control? You will never have enough authority to satisfy you.
  • Is it leisure? You will never have enough rest to satisfy you.
  • Is it success? You will never achieve enough to satisfy you.
  • It is freedom? You will never be lawless enough to satisfy you.

And in the light of all those questions and the certainty of the answers, let’s go back to Lewis.

If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

So it is that Jesus saw Satan’s promises as shallow mud pie imitations of the real thing – and we should too! After all, why spend your life building mud pie kingdoms for Satan when you could be clothed in the rich majesty of the righteousness of Christ for all of eternity?

It’s notable here that Jesus didn’t come to inherit a worldly kingdom bargained for and bought by worship to the Devil, but to inaugurate a spiritual kingdom (and fulfill the everlasting Davidic kingdom – 2 Sam. 7) that would march from Jerusalem to the farthest reaches of the earth and conquer foe after foe in its wake. His mission and vision for us is big – bigger than ourselves and what we want here and now in the moment. Our mission is to enter into his labor (John 4) and spread His kingdom, not spend endless days in the slave fields of Satan.

4:9 And he took him to Jerusalem and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, [10] for it is written, “‘He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you,’ [11] and “‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’” [12] And Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

NOTE on the Scene: Darrell Bock has some great insight on the scene here: “Jesus ends up on the temple’s pinnacle, but the exact locale is uncertain. Some think it is the temple gate, but many think it is the Royal Porch on the temple’s southeast corner, which loomed over a cliff and the Kirdon Valley, creating a drop of some 450 feet….According to church tradition, James the Just died from a similar fall from the temple’s pinnacle (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 2.23.11).”

As we examine the text from which Satan is quoting, we see it comes from Psalm 91, which says, “He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you” – here Satan is using scripture very ill indeed. He is twisting it to suit his own purposes – how often do we see that in today’s preaching amongst the popular preachers of our day! But looking at this particular passage we specifically see two things: 1. We see Satan’s capriciousness with human life and 2. We see that he promotes a lifestyle that says “sin first, ask forgiveness later.”

There is a great deal of presumption in Satan’s words. This same temptation though actually works for people today and we’ve seen it again and again have we not? We see people test God by living recklessly and squandering what they have. They pay little heed to their bodies or the gifts God has given them, instead they say “I’ll do things my way and if I’m wrong I’ll just ask God to forgive me.”

And at the heart of this temptation is not Satan’s desire to see God’s power magnified, but rather to see God’s image bearers maligned and killed. Remember, it if Satan’s great desire to kill and harm God’s creation – especially those who are His children.

Of course our Lord doesn’t fall (no pun intended) for the trick. Thus, we see in this third and final test that Satan has been flummoxed and completely beaten. His presumptuousness has been show for what it is, and his twisting of Scriptures hasn’t fooled the Son of Man and the Son of God.

Christ finishes each test exemplifying His role as Prophet, Priest and King – as Henricksen so neatly lays out, “as Highpriest he suffers being tempted (Heb. 2:18); as Prophet he thrice appeals to Scripture (verses 4, 8, 12); and as King he gives battle to his chief opponent and triumphs over him.” I love that!

4:13-14 And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time. [14] And Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee, and a report about him went out through all the surrounding country. [15] And he taught in their synagogues, being glorified by all.

NOTE: here it says he was “glorified” by all, and I have made mention of the way this word “glorified” can be used in my notes on John’s gospel. Commonly we think of the word used to praise God or sing praises to God, or simply the glory of light or radiance that emanates from God’s presence. But in uses like this we see a fuller version of the former idea – but its about more than singing praise. There is this underlying meaning that has to do with pronouncing the virtues or character qualities of a person. You are magnifying so that others can see, what it is that is good about this person. So there is a fuller sense to “glorify” than simply to sing praise, and it has to do with the content of that praise. You are pointing to the why and not simply the who; you are proclaiming the character of God to the nations (so to speak). This brings him glory.

Jesus comes out of the desert triumphant, whereas Moses didn’t even make it out of the desert, nor did the first generation of the Israelites!

The Israelites broke the covenant before Moses even made it down the mountain! They couldn’t get past “Go” before they were in breach of the covenant with God.

But Jesus is the “true Israel”, the one who succeeded where Israel failed. As Burk Parson’s said:

Only Jesus completely fulfilled all of the Father’s righteous laws for Israel. As the only faithful Israelite, Jesus is an Israelite according to the flesh, and He enjoyed all the benefits that come from being born into the nation that possessed the oracles of God. As the faithful Israelite Jesus is the true Israel because He is the true Son of God (Matt. 2:13–14).

Often times in the OT Israel would be called God’s “vine”, and when Jesus said “I am the true vine” (John 15), he was saying that He is the “true Israel” the one who obeyed perfectly and fulfilled the law perfectly in order to give us His righteousness.

Commenting on John’s portrait of Jesus as central to all things, Tom Schreiner says, “He is the true vine – that is, the true Israel. He is the true bread, which in contrast to manna, bestows eternal life” (Biblical Theology, pg. 640).

And unlike Adam, Jesus withstood all temptation – even though, as Geldenhuys says, “He had found Himself in the most unfavorable circumstances when the devil launched his most ruthless attacks against Him, He was nevertheless victorious. What contrast this forms with Adam, who fell although he was living at that time under the most favorable circumstances!”

Adam fell and plunged the race into sin, and Israel failed countless times in the wilderness to love and obey God despite all He had done for them. However, contra the Israelites, Jesus here comes triumphantly out of the wilderness. “His time of preparation and testing was now finished. He had succeeded in the wilderness where Israel had failed. He was God’s obedient Son in contrast to Adam. He commenced his public ministry full of the Spirit’s power; equipped by the Spirit to carry out the will of God” (Schreiner, NT Theology, pg. 443).

This victory was emblematic of his ministry as a whole, and it is because of His final victory at the cross that we can know our own failings are drowned in the deep pool of His success.

NOTE: As we wrap up this section and look into the next, we’ll how Jesus, filled with the Spirit, has transitioned into His mission here on Earth. He has finished the preparatory stages and is now going to proclaim the in-breaking of the kingdom of God, and advance the most significant three years of historical narrative and spiritual importance up until and since.

 

An Odd Story

Last night at our weekly Bible study I taught on Judges 17 and 18.  This has to have been the oddest series of chapters I’ve ever taught on! Yet, there are also profound lessons to be learned.  Below are my notes – they are pretty rough-draft, not polished etc. But they point to a few of the major lessons I learned from my study of these chapters.  I think its fair to say that this story (of Micah and the Danites) is very odd – but also rather funny.  There are satirical nuances laced throughout each chapter, and I hope you enjoy them as much as I did!

PJW

Chapter 17 (Introduction) 

As we enter our study on chapter 17, we’re beginning to examine the final section of this book of the Bible (there are three major sections).  Chapters 17-21 are sometimes called “appendices” of the book because they add further context to the situation in Israel in the form of two additional stories.

Each of these stories is low on commentary by the narrator, but the writing style is extremely subtle, and sophistication marks the compilation of each composition.

Both of these stories are divided up into two chapters each, and they share many things in common with each other.  In fact, Daniel Block mentions 9 such commonalities, but one that I find most significant is his final one:

Both accounts are punctuated by variations of the refrain “in those days Israel had no king” (17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25). In the first the formula is inserted at critical junctures in the narrative and functions as an episode marker, in the second the formula frames the entire narrative, appearing at the beginning and the end. Twice, once in each section, the formula is augmented with, “everyone did as he saw fit” (17:6; 21:25).

Up until this point God has raised up Judges who saved Israel from her slavery to other nations.  The cycle of sin and judgment and delivery has been a downward spiral with each Judge being less and less moral/upright in their behavior and leadership.

By the time we reach chapter 17 (which is not necessarily after Samson, but probably meant to coincide with the times of his judging Israel) the nation has hit rock bottom.  They are pretty much fully “Canaanized” and have become more like the people of the land than the men and women God wanted them to be.  This is almost surely a result of their failure to expel the native Canaanites from their home turf.

Commenting on this, Tom Schreiner explains the reason for needing to cleanse the land of the Canaanites:

The call to utterly destroy the peoples in Canaan is a shock to modern sensibilities, but despite the attempt of some scholars to say otherwise, it is quite clear that Israel believed that these were instructions from Yahweh Himself. The failure to carry out such instructions would imperil the fundamental tenet of Israel’s faith: Yahweh’s Lordship. Israel must cleanse the land from evil, for Canaan is to be a new Eden, a new garden of the Lord, free from evil.

By not expelling God’s enemies from the land, the Israelites have fallen under their influence and are no longer following the laws of Moses.

So here we are, so far from where Moses and Joshua had come both spiritually and physically.  The people are finally in the land, but far from being a light to the nations, they are hardly discernable from the people who originally inhabited the land.

Lastly, one of the things we ought to notice (that a few commentators brought up) is that there are two tribes in the spotlight here from 17-21: Dan and Benjamin.  Dan would one day lead the northern kingdom and Benjamin the southern.  Both were tribes with settlements that were in the heart of Canaan.  The significance of these things is that we’re seeing here in chapter 17 an example of the private/personal apostasy of one man’s home, and then later in 18 we see it with Dan. But its tempting to think “well I wonder if these are isolated instances…”  The author, I think, purposefully uses these examples (sic Dan/Benjamin) to show us the depth and thoroughness of the apostasy of the nation as a whole.  These are kitchen table issues (as we say in politics).  They range in scope and scale from the least to the greatest and the reach of this kind of lifestyle is vast.  We cannot leave these final chapters without understanding how far men will flee from God given their own devices:

10 as it is written:
“None is righteous, no, not one;
11 no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.”
13 “Their throat is an open grave;
they use their tongues to deceive.”
“The venom of asps is under their lips.”
14 “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”
15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood;
16 in their paths are ruin and misery,
17 and the way of peace they have not known.”
18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” (Romans 3:10-18) 

 

17:1-6 There was a man of the hill country of Ephraim, whose name was Micah. 2 And he said to his mother, “The 1,100 pieces of silver that were taken from you, about which you uttered a curse, and also spoke it in my ears, behold, the silver is with me; I took it.” And his mother said, “Blessed be my son by the Lord.” 3 And he restored the 1,100 pieces of silver to his mother. And his mother said, “I dedicate the silver to the Lord from my hand for my son, to make a carved image and a metal image. Now therefore I will restore it to you.” 4 So when he restored the money to his mother, his mother took 200 pieces of silver and gave it to the silversmith, who made it into a carved image and a metal image. And it was in the house of Micah. 5 And the man Micah had a shrine, and he made an ephod and household gods, and ordained one of his sons, who became his priest. 6 In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.

Verse 6 helps us explain the bizarre story that precedes it, and the equally bizarre story that continues after it.  This man, who appears to have been a thief and one who disrespected his parents (there goes two of the 10 commandments right there), has the gall to make household idols and then appoint one of his sons to be a priest with an ephod and all the trappings (almost) of a feaux levitical ministry (there goes another one of the commandments).

First I want to offer a note of explanation about the curse and the blessing of Micah’s mother. There’s a good chance that the curse itself was enough to motivate Micah to return the silver, and the reason for this is that at the time a “curse” was seen as something that was alive and active – like a hidden warrior who could strike at any moment without you knowing it.  The blessing was thought of as the only way to undue the curse.  So we ought not to think of Micah’s mother as so elated at her son that she sought to bless him (though perhaps she was), but rather that this is the sort of stock response to undue the cursing she had uttered previously.

Now, secondly, note how syncretistic the situation is here.  This man Micah has made idols out of silver, which is clearly a pagan practice in violation of the law of God, yet he has also made an ephod and appointed one of his sons to be a sort of priest for the idols.  He’s doing all this in his own home, which is clearly a violation of how God wanted to be worshiped.  Much of the books of Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy focus on the fact that God will be worshiped as He wants and where He wants.  But Micah is either showing significant ignorance, or rash arrogance.

So when we read in verse six that everyone was doing what was right in his own eyes, it begins to make sense – especially in light of the fact that “there was no king” at the time.  Not only was there no physical ruler that united all the tribes under one lawful banner, but the people who occupied the land of Canaan no longer regarded the Lord as their King.

To this end, I thought it right to quote Baptist Scholar Peter Gentry who said the following while remarking on the nature of the Davidic Covenant and the order of God’s bringing the Ark into Jerusalem prior to making the everlasting covenant with David:

The return of the ark in 2 Samuel 6 indicates that Yahweh is returning to live in the midst of his people as king. The fact that 2 Samuel 6 precedes 7 shows that only when the kingship of Yahweh among his people is firmly established can the issue of kingship in Israel be discussed. A sanctuary for the Lord comes before the monarchy

At this point in Israel, everyone is doing what they think is right.  They are following what they believe to be the right way to live their lives.  However, those guidelines are all subjective to however each man feels or thinks (as Dale R. Davis said, the entire law code seems subject to each man’s “glands”!).

17:7-13 Now there was a young man of Bethlehem in Judah, of the family of Judah, who was a Levite, and he sojourned there. 8 And the man departed from the town of Bethlehem in Judah to sojourn where he could find a place. And as he journeyed, he came to the hill country of Ephraim to the house of Micah. 9 And Micah said to him, “Where do you come from?” And he said to him, “I am a Levite of Bethlehem in Judah, and I am going to sojourn where I may find a place.” 10 And Micah said to him, “Stay with me, and be to me a father and a priest, and I will give you ten pieces of silver a year and a suit of clothes and your living.” And the Levite went in. 11 And the Levite was content to dwell with the man, and the young man became to him like one of his sons. 12 And Micah ordained the Levite, and the young man became his priest, and was in the house of Micah. 13 Then Micah said, “Now I know that the Lord will prosper me, because I have a Levite as priest.”

We don’t know what the name of the “young man” was in verses 8-13, but he was a Levite, and he seems to have been on a journey when he came to Micah’s house.  We don’t know why or where he was going, but once he comes up on the house of Micah his entire life changes.

Block hilariously describes this young Levite as he’s dealing with the fact that we really don’t know a lot about him:

He is a “laid back” professional minister following the path of least resistance and waiting for an opportunity to open up. And he just happens to arrive at the house of Micah in the hill country of Ephraim. But what a stroke of luck this turns out to be, for both him and Micah!

Micah, who we’ve seen is a syncretistic idolatrous sinner, sees this man, this Levite, as from God. Why? Because to date he has been making due with one of his sons as priest, but no longer.  Now he can have the real deal – a Levite!

We know that there’s a lot more to being a Levitical priest than simply being a descendent of Levi – there are ceremonial cleansing, and learning and all manner of rules that one must go through.  But not so here, Micah doesn’t care about all that.  And why should he?  In his lifetime, and in the generations that have come before him, I’m betting he never saw the priesthood properly modeled, not only that, but a true encounter with God hadn’t happened in quite some time.

When verse six says that everyone did what was right in their own eyes, it reminds us that there was no fear nor any love for God in the eyes of Israelites.

What this means is that men like Micah would have been more superstitious than religious.  Micah thinks that simply having a Levite as his own personal idol-priest will make him to “prosper” (as Block says, “the Levite is nothing more than a good luck charm”)!

We get a chuckle at this because is sounds absurd, but we see the same thing in our churches today.  In fact, I was just reading Matt Chandler’s book ‘The Explicit Gospel’ and he talks about how in Texas where he is a pastor, there are record church attendees.  It’s a way of life to go to church on Sunday morning.  Having spiritual transformation, obedience and love for God are not necessarily part of the equation.  It’s motivated partly by a way of life, partly based on some superstition (enabled by the prosperity gospel preachers), and partly on feel-good self-help centered gathering that give attendees a helpful trinket of useful to-dos for the week ahead.

So as ridiculous as Micah’s situation looks to us, let’s not forget that many of us have grown up in churches, or know those who still go to churches, that don’t preach the full gospel of Jesus Christ.  Ignorance of the Word breeds superstition, prosperity gospel, and all manner of evil.

Chapter 18

18:1 In those days there was no king in Israel. And in those days the tribe of the people of Dan was seeking for itself an inheritance to dwell in, for until then no inheritance among the tribes of Israel had fallen to them. 

The more clear way of putting this is that there was no inheritance “taken”, perhaps.  They were given an inheritance (as we read of in Joshua 19:40-48) but they were beaten back by the Amorites and could not repel them – see chapter 1.

So instead of going before God and asking for help, they have basically been stuck in these two cities of Zorah and Eshtaol (likely their basecamps from which they launch their initial Canaanite expedition) for several generations, having failed to take the land the Lord gave them.

We might note that this entire chapter is somewhat of a parody of the earlier conquest accounts.  As Block says, “this chapter is deliberately composed as a parody on the earlier spy mission traditions. Nothing in this chapter is normal; people’s values and behavior are all topsy-turvy.”

18:2-6 So the people of Dan sent five able men from the whole number of their tribe, from Zorah and from Eshtaol, to spy out the land and to explore it. And they said to them, “Go and explore the land.” And they came to the hill country of Ephraim, to the house of Micah, and lodged there. 3 When they were by the house of Micah, they recognized the voice of the young Levite. And they turned aside and said to him, “Who brought you here? What are you doing in this place? What is your business here?” 4 And he said to them, “This is how Micah dealt with me: he has hired me, and I have become his priest.” 5 And they said to him, “Inquire of God, please, that we may know whether the journey on which we are setting out will succeed.” 6 And the priest said to them, “Go in peace. The journey on which you go is under the eye of the Lord.”

So like in former generations, the Danites send out “spies” to scout out the land.  The “able men” as the ESV translates it, could also be “noble men” or “noble/mighty warrior” to which Bock comically states, “the present designation would have suited Joshua and Caleb, the two trustworthy members of the original team of twelve Israelite scouts (Num. 14:5-10), but here it is ironic. The Danites may be heroic figures physically and militarily, but they are spiritual pygmies.”  Ha!

It is interesting that these Danites recognize the voice of the Levite, and though we don’t know how (the author doesn’t explain it) they recognize his voice, they begin to immediately interrogate him.  Interestingly, his responses are reflective of his totally self-serving agenda.  He talks about how good Micah has been to him (vs.4) and how Micah has paid him good money to be there (vs.4).

The next thing that happens here is that the Danites seem thrilled to have run across someone who can tell them their fortune – what luck!  As Block says, “Just as Micah’s cult has lacked credibility and authority  until the Levite arrived, so the mission of these scouts lacks authority without an oracular authentication from the deity.”  But now they have a genuine Levite before them – heck, he’s even got an Ephod!

It’s just such an odd situation – it’s as if you’re watching a Monty Python movie or something.  I can picture these guys getting made fun of so badly.  Everything is so whacko…

Then, to add to the oddities, the response of the Levite is pretty much instantaneous…its almost like he just glibly answered, “Ya, looks like you’re blessed…move along.”  Did he even bother to consult with God?  Who even knows!? In fact, its not as if he answers them clearly that God will bless the mission!  But it doesn’t seem to bother the Danites – they take it the way they want to take it and the Levite sends them on their way…and like the dolts that they are, they proceed in the utmost happiness and tranquility of mind. 

18:7-10 Then the five men departed and came to Laish and saw the people who were there, how they lived in security, after the manner of the Sidonians, quiet and unsuspecting, lacking nothing that is in the earth and possessing wealth, and how they were far from the Sidonians and had no dealings with anyone. 8 And when they came to their brothers at Zorah and Eshtaol, their brothers said to them, “What do you report?” 9 They said, “Arise, and let us go up against them, for we have seen the land, and behold, it is very good. And will you do nothing? Do not be slow to go, to enter in and possess the land. 10 As soon as you go, you will come to an unsuspecting people. The land is spacious, for God has given it into your hands, a place where there is no lack of anything that is in the earth.”

Here are more parallels between the original mission to spy out the land of Canaan, and this comical less-than-holy mission of the Danites.  They spy things out, they like what they see, they come back, they report on the situation, and the response seems favorable.  They have scouted a land that is safe, has natural defenses of mountains and naturally occurring ramparts to safeguard the city (see Block), and is far from the Amorites and the Sidonians who wouldn’t want to bother with anything inland anyway.  They have plentiful resources, and they live a sort of idyllic life – a life that the Danites see themselves enjoying soon!

The scouts are so excited, that they accuse their fellow brothers of stalling and even through in that the land has been given to them by Yahweh – no doubt encouraged by their encounter with the fake priest.

18:11-14 So 600 men of the tribe of Dan, armed with weapons of war, set out from Zorah and Eshtaol, 12 and went up and encamped at Kiriath-jearim in Judah. On this account that place is called Mahaneh-dan to this day; behold, it is west of Kiriath-jearim. 13 And they passed on from there to the hill country of Ephraim, and came to the house of Micah.

14 Then the five men who had gone to scout out the country of Laish said to their brothers, “Do you know that in these houses there are an ephod, household gods, a carved image, and a metal image? Now therefore consider what you will do.”

One of the interesting things that we find in verse 11 is that there’s only 600 men that decide to go with the 5 who spied out the land.  It seems like a small amount given the fact that the whole tribe of Dan had commissioned them. This is reflected in the fact also that in verse 11 the author uses the word “clan” instead of tribe (even though the ESV uses the same word here, the Hebrew is more limited).  So I think that the sense of the text is that many people from the tribe didn’t decide to go – and as Block notes, the rest of them pretty much disappeared from the pages of history.

Once the group gets the Micah’s house, they are definitely going to stop and check in with their lucky Levite.  After all, he offered great advice the first time, so why not stop again – heck, why not stop and offer the man a better job?  After all, he would probably take it…

18:15 And they turned aside there and came to the house of the young Levite, at the home of Micah, and asked him about his welfare. 16 Now the 600 men of the Danites, armed with their weapons of war, stood by the entrance of the gate. 17 And the five men who had gone to scout out the land went up and entered and took the carved image, the ephod, the household gods, and the metal image, while the priest stood by the entrance of the gate with the 600 men armed with weapons of war. 18 And when these went into Micah’s house and took the carved image, the ephod, the household gods, and the metal image, the priest said to them, “What are you doing?” 19 And they said to him, “Keep quiet; put your hand on your mouth and come with us and be to us a father and a priest. Is it better for you to be priest to the house of one man, or to be priest to a tribe and clan in Israel?”

18:20 And the priest’s heart was glad. He took the ephod and the household gods and the carved image and went along with the people.

I think its fairly obvious that “the priest’s heart was glad” signals the ambition of this Levite.  He thinks mostly about himself first, and doesn’t seem to give a whit about loyalty to Micah – much less about the blatant apostasy he’s been committing.

This reminds me of the simony that marked the church in the medieval ages.  Becoming a church minister became a normal career to consider like that of a farmer or dairyman, rather than a calling from the Lord.

Lastly, the whole situation here is just odd, as I’ve mentioned before.  The household shrine is now stolen from Micah, who ironically had stolen his mom’s silver which was then used to pay for this shrine by his mom in the first place…not only this, but they have the arrogance to think that wherever they setup shop the Lord will be with them.  “We can plop down a shrine anywhere and be all set!”

18:21 So they turned and departed, putting the little ones and the livestock and the goods in front of them. 22 When they had gone a distance from the home of Micah, the men who were in the houses near Micah’s house were called out, and they overtook the people of Dan. 23 And they shouted to the people of Dan, who turned around and said to Micah, “What is the matter with you, that you come with such a company?” 24 And he said, “You take my gods that I made and the priest, and go away, and what have I left? How then do you ask me, ‘What is the matter with you?’” 25 And the people of Dan said to him, “Do not let your voice be heard among us, lest angry fellows fall upon you, and you lose your life with the lives of your household.” 26 Then the people of Dan went their way. And when Micah saw that they were too strong for him, he turned and went back to his home.

If ever you wondered about whether the Danites might have been righteous men, this passage should stop your wondering.  They have stolen what was not theirs, and subsequently stolen into the night.

In his anger and frustration, Micah chases after the band of miscreants and upon catching up to them tries to stop them from stealing all that he has.  You would think, at this point in the story that the Levite might interject himself – that perhaps he would feel a sense of remorse for what he had done.  But that isn’t the case.  Instead, he keeps silent.  He has made his bed and will lie in it.

When Micah realizes that to argue further with the men would result in his termination (“you lose your life and the lives of your household”), he desists and returns home.

Is this the way righteous men act?  Is this the way the promised land was taken?  Is this the way those who fear God and serve Him behave?  With no consideration for others…this is yet another indication of the self-centered idolatry that permeated all of Israel from the least to the greatest, each man followed in his path according to his own ideas and counsel.

Today there are many who call themselves Christians – even claiming to be part of the evangelical church.  But they are nothing short of Danite robbers.  They have no honor, nor do they live according to the word of the Lord.  They are pretenders who are self-centered glory seekers.  They are, in the end, mercenaries.  They are mercenaries because they serve themselves and not God.

18:27 But the people of Dan took what Micah had made, and the priest who belonged to him, and they came to Laish, to a people quiet and unsuspecting, and struck them with the edge of the sword and burned the city with fire. 28 And there was no deliverer because it was far from Sidon, and they had no dealings with anyone. It was in the valley that belongs to Beth-rehob. Then they rebuilt the city and lived in it. 29 And they named the city Dan, after the name of Dan their ancestor, who was born to Israel; but the name of the city was Laish at the first. 30 And the people of Dan set up the carved image for themselves, and Jonathan the son of Gershom, son of Moses, and his sons were priests to the tribe of the Danites until the day of the captivity of the land. 31 So they set up Micah’s carved image that he made, as long as the house of God was at Shiloh.

Laish means “lion” but the Danites named it after Dan, their ancestor, one of the sons of Jacob (Israel).

It is not until verse 30 of this final chapter in the two-chapter story that we really understand the full weight and depth of the Canaanization of the land.  And this is because we finally learn in verse 30 that the Levite who has whored himself out to idols and to the highest bidder is a direct descendent of Moses himself.  His is the son of Gershom (“son” in this case likely means “descendent” but if it does not, then there is good reason to believe this story took place earlier in the Judges narrative than later).

The intent of the story is to leave you feeling nauseous.  You want to throw up because if you’ve been reading the accounts of Scripture up until this point and have any idea as the manifold destiny of this people you can’t help but feel like they have unwittingly charged forward to their lowest point since slavery in Egypt.  Instead of slavery to Pharaoh they are slaves to idols.  They have broken free from service to God and have whored after other gods who are not Gods at all.  They are foolish, arrogant and headed for ruin.

So might you and I be had it not been had it not been for the grace of God.  You and I are like these Danites.  We spy out land that isn’t given to us.  We are always looking for greener pastures – never content to conquer what has been given until our hands by the Lord.  We steal, pilfer, and snub our noses at God and rebel against all that He has intended us to be.  If Christ hadn’t rescued us from ourselves we would be lost.  Forgotten in the pages of history.  Missing in some dungeon in Hell’s dark cavernous landscape never to be heard from again except by those who share our fate.

Praise God that He rescued us.

Christ: the Center of all Biblical Covenants

Christ: the Fulfillment and Center of all Biblical Covenants

Earlier this evening, while teaching a small group study, I mentioned how the Biblical covenants serve as the backbone of the entire Biblical-theological narrative.  To understand how the covenants work and how they point to Christ is to have an understanding of how the Bible is put together, and how God’s plan of redemption has been played out over thousands of years. Well as I was reading this evening in Peter Gentry and Stephen Wellum’s excellent book ‘Kingdom Through Covenant’, I found a nice summary of this idea and wanted to post it here for those who might be interested.  I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

 

…The covenants, then, reveal first and foremost the incredible sovereign-personal triune God of Scripture who is our covenant Lord, who makes and keeps his promises – and as such they can never be thwarted. It is for this reason that all of the biblical covenants are unconditional or unilaterally guaranteed by the power and grace of God. Whether it is with Adam in the garden or with other covenant heads, God’s commitment to his image-bearers and creation, tied to his promise in Gen. 3:15, will never fail. That same promise runs across the entire Canon, and it is developed through the biblical covenants until it comes to its most profound fulfillment in the coming of God’s own dear Son. It continues in the Noahic covenant; it is given more definition and expansion in the Abrahamic; it undergirds the old covenant and the Davidic, and, as noted, it reaches its crescendo in the person and work of Christ.

On the other hand, all the biblical covenants also demand an obedient partner. God as our Creator and Lord demands from his image-bearers, who were made to know him, complete devotion and obedience. In this sense, there is a conditional or bilateral element to the covenants.  This is certainly evident with Adam as he is given commands and responsibilities to fulfill, with the expectation that he will do so perfectly…Furthermore, in the Noahic covenant, obedience is also demanded, which is also true of Abraham, the natio of Israel, David and his sons, and in the greatest way imaginable in the coming of the Son, who obeys perfectly and completely, in every aspect of his life and especially even unto death on a cross (Phil. 2:6-11).

Yet, as the biblical covenants progress through redemptive-history, this tension grows, since it becomes evident that it is only the Lord himself who remains the faithful covenant partner. From his initial promise in Genesis 3:15 to reverse the effects of sin and death; from his increasingly greater promises made through the covenants; from the beautiful picture of covenant initiation in Genesis 15, which demonstrates that he takes the covenant obligations solely upon himself; from the provision of a sacrificial system to atone for sin (Lev. 17:11); from repeatedly keeping his promises to a rebellious and hardhearted people, God shows himself, time and time again, to be the faithful covenant partner. By contrast, all the human covenant mediators – Adam, Noah, Abraham, Israel, David and his sons – show themselves to be unfaithful, disobedient covenant breakers – some to a greater extent than others. As a result, there is no faithful, obedient son who fully obeys the demands of the covenant. Obedience must be rendered, but there is no obedient image-bearer/son to do so. How, then, can God remain the holy and just God that he is and continue to be present with us in covenant relation? How can he remain in relation with us unless our disobedience is removed and our sin is paid for in full? As one works across the covenants and the tension increases, there is only one answer to these questions: it is only if God himself, as the covenant maker and keeper, unilaterally acts to keep his own promise through the provision of a faithful covenant partner that a new and better covenant can be established. It is only in the giving of his Son incarnate that our redemption is secured, our sin is paid for, and the inauguration of an unshakeable new covenant is established.

It is only be maintaining the dual emphasis on the unconditional/conditional in the biblical covenants, leading us to their fulfillment in the unbreakable new covenant grounded in God’s obedient Son, that we appreciate Scripture’s incredible Christological focus.  The story line of Scriptures told by the covenants leads us to him. He is the one, as our great prophet, priest, and king, who accomplished our salvation. It is in Christ alone, God the Son incarnate, that the covenants find their fulfillment and this built-in tension finds its resolution.