Hebrews

Jesus, the Nazarene

19 But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, 20 saying, “Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.” 21 And he rose and took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee. 23 And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, so that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, that he would be called a Nazarene. – Matthew 2:19-23 ESV

Matthew provides us with no timeline for the events recorded in this chapter. We only know that Joseph was warned by an angel to take his wife and child to Egypt. And sometime later, the angel gave Joseph permission to return to Israel because Herod the Great had died. The dates surrounding these events seem less relevant to Matthew than do the details concerning the return of Jesus to the land of Israel. Just as God had released the descendants of Jacob from their long stay in Egypt and restored them to the land of Israel, so Jesus was allowed to return to the land of promise.

There is an interesting parallel between Jesus and Moses. Both were presented as deliverers of their people. Moses was a Jew who had grown up as an Egyptian, but due to his murder of a fellow Egyptian, he had become an exile and a fugitive, living in the land of Midian. Yet God called Moses and sent him back to Egypt so that he might lead the people of Israel out of captivity and into the land HE had promised to their forefather, Abraham. And God called Jesus out of Egypt, sending Him back to the land of Israel, where He would become the deliverer of His people. Jesus Himself would later proclaim that His God-ordained mission was to provide release for those who were held captive. 

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free…” – Luke 4:18 NLT

But Jesus was not talking about release from physical slavery. He did not come to deliver those held captive by some political or military power. No, His mission was to set free all those held captive by sin and death. The author of Hebrews describes the role of Jesus as the deliverer of Israel in the following terms:

Because God’s children are human beings—made of flesh and blood—the Son also became flesh and blood. For only as a human being could he die, and only by dying could he break the power of the devil, who had the power of death. Only in this way could he set free all who have lived their lives as slaves to the fear of dying. – Hebrews 2:14-15 NLT

There is a second parallel between Moses and Jesus, and it involves the killing of the innocent. In the opening chapter of Exodus, we are told that the Pharaoh feared the growing number of Israelites living in the land of Egypt, so he came up with a diabolical plan to manage the exploding birthrate of the Jews. He gave a command to the Hebrew midwives, designed to limit the number of male births among the Jews and so eliminate any future threat of an insurrection.

“When you help the Hebrew women as they give birth, watch as they deliver. If the baby is a boy, kill him; if it is a girl, let her live.” – Exodus 1:16 NLT

And Herod had issued a similar command in Jesus’ day, ordering the execution of all Jewish boys under the age of two.

Herod was furious when he realized that the wise men had outwitted him. He sent soldiers to kill all the boys in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under, based on the wise men’s report of the star’s first appearance. – Matthew 2:16 NLT

In both cases, God spared the lives of Moses and Jesus. One was hidden by his mother in a basket made of reeds and rescued by the daughter of Pharaoh. He would grow up in the wealth and opulence of the royal palace, living like a prince and enjoying all the benefits that come with being part of Pharaoh’s household. Jesus would be hidden by God the Father in the land of Egypt, only to return to the land of promise where He would grow up in relative obscurity and lacking any of the royal perks that Moses enjoyed. Interestingly enough, Moses was a Jew from a poor household who became a prince in the palace of Pharaoh. Yet, Jesus was the Son of God, who left behind His royal rights and privileges and took on the likeness of a man, being born into a nondescript Jewish household with little in the way of wealth or fame.

The apostle Paul describes the entrance of Jesus into the world in terms that express His humility and selflessness.

Though he was God,
    he did not think of equality with God
    as something to cling to.
Instead, he gave up his divine privileges;
    he took the humble position of a slave
    and was born as a human being.
When he appeared in human form,
    he humbled himself in obedience to God
    and died a criminal’s death on a cross. – Philippians 2:8 NLT

Matthew later records the following statement by Jesus concerning His far-from-comfortable lifestyle.

“Foxes have dens to live in, and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place even to lay his head.” –  Matthew 8:20 NLT

There are several similarities shared by Moses and Jesus, but the author of Hebrews points out that any comparison between them falls far short. Moses was just a shadow of the one to come. He provided an incomplete picture of the

Jesus deserves far more glory than Moses, just as a person who builds a house deserves more praise than the house itself. For every house has a builder, but the one who built everything is God.

Moses was certainly faithful in God’s house as a servant. His work was an illustration of the truths God would reveal later. But Christ, as the Son, is in charge of God’s entire house. And we are God’s house, if we keep our courage and remain confident in our hope in Christ. – Hebrews 3:3-6 NLT

Moses had been faithful, but not perfectly so. While he had managed to do God’s will and deliver the nation of Israel to the border of the land of Canaan, he would be denied entrance into the land because he had failed to be fully obedient and had treated God with disdain and disrespect. Yet, Jesus was able to confidently assert His full submission to the will of His Heavenly Father.

“I brought glory to you here on earth by completing the work you gave me to do.” – John 17:4 NLT

Jesus was the true deliverer. And He came to offer a rest unlike anything the people of Israel had ever known before. The land of Canaan was supposed to have been a place of rest for the people of Israel. But the first generation of Jews who had escaped captivity in Egypt had refused to enter the land when given the opportunity. And while the next generation had finally obeyed God and crossed over the Jordan and taken possession of the land, they had never fully experienced the rest God had offered, because they had refused to live in obedience to His will.

The author of Hebrews points out that Joshua was able to get the people into the land, but they had never enjoyed all the blessings God had promised, because they had refused to keep their covenant commitment to Him. And yet, God’s promise of rest was not eliminated or invalidated. He would still keep His covenant promise.

Now if Joshua had succeeded in giving them this rest, God would not have spoken about another day of rest still to come. So there is a special rest still waiting for the people of God. – Hebrews 4:8-9 NLT

And as the author of Hebrews points out, the offer of rest still stands.

So God’s rest is there for people to enter, but those who first heard this good news failed to enter because they disobeyed God. So God set another time for entering his rest, and that time is today. – Hebrews 4:6-7 NLT

Jesus would return from Egypt, settle in the land of Galilee in the city of Nazareth. This was the actual hometown of Joseph, so, in a sense, they were returning home.

Matthew seems to state that Joseph’s decision to settle in Nazareth was the fulfillment of an Old Testament prophecy. But the problem is that there is no Old Testament passage that speaks of Nazareth as being the home of the Messiah. Bethlehem is mentioned, but never Nazareth. So, is Matthew making this up? Is he playing fast and loose with his facts? It seems that he is tying together a variety of Old Testament passages that speak of the Messiah being despised and associating them with the city of Nazareth. At the time Jesus was born, neither Galilee or Nazareth was held in high esteem. Even Thomas wondered how Jesus, the Messiah could hail from such a lowly place as Nazareth.

Philip went to look for Nathanael and told him,  “We have found the very person Moses and the prophets wrote about! His name is Jesus, the son of Joseph from Nazareth.”

“Nazareth!” exclaimed Nathanael. “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” – John 1:45-46 NLT

Matthew seems to be suggesting that all the Old Testament passages that predicted the suffering and ignominy of Jesus were directly tied to His hometown of Nazareth (Psalm 22:6-8, 13; 69:8, 20-21; Isaiah 11:1; 42:1-4; 49:7; 53:2-3, 8; Daniel 9:26). Jesus would be referred to as a citizen of Nazareth, a designation that would be viewed with scorn and derision, not respect and honor. He would be born in the backwater town of Bethlehem and raised in the lowly environs of Nazareth. He would not be impressive in appearance, renowned for His pedigree, or admired for His roots. And yet, He would be the anointed one of God, the deliverer of His people, and the Savior of the world.

There was nothing beautiful or majestic about his appearance,
    nothing to attract us to him.
He was despised and rejected—
    a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief.
We turned our backs on him and looked the other way.
    He was despised, and we did not care. - Isaiah 53:2-3 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Exodus Reversed

58 “If you are not careful to do all the words of this law that are written in this book, that you may fear this glorious and awesome name, the Lord your God, 59 then the Lord will bring on you and your offspring extraordinary afflictions, afflictions severe and lasting, and sicknesses grievous and lasting. 60 And he will bring upon you again all the diseases of Egypt, of which you were afraid, and they shall cling to you. 61 Every sickness also and every affliction that is not recorded in the book of this law, the Lord will bring upon you, until you are destroyed. 62 Whereas you were as numerous as the stars of heaven, you shall be left few in number, because you did not obey the voice of the Lord your God. 63 And as the Lord took delight in doing you good and multiplying you, so the Lord will take delight in bringing ruin upon you and destroying you. And you shall be plucked off the land that you are entering to take possession of it.

64 “And the Lord will scatter you among all peoples, from one end of the earth to the other, and there you shall serve other gods of wood and stone, which neither you nor your fathers have known. 65 And among these nations you shall find no respite, and there shall be no resting place for the sole of your foot, but the Lord will give you there a trembling heart and failing eyes and a languishing soul. 66 Your life shall hang in doubt before you. Night and day you shall be in dread and have no assurance of your life. 67 In the morning you shall say, ‘If only it were evening!’ and at evening you shall say, ‘If only it were morning!’ because of the dread that your heart shall feel, and the sights that your eyes shall see. 68 And the Lord will bring you back in ships to Egypt, a journey that I promised that you should never make again; and there you shall offer yourselves for sale to your enemies as male and female slaves, but there will be no buyer.” – Deuteronomy 28:58-68 ESV

In this last portion of chapter 28, Moses makes an unmistakable link between the future state of Israel and their former condition in Egypt. In effect, he describes them experiencing a reverse exodus. More than four decades earlier, God had graciously delivered the people of Israel from their captivity in Egypt and led them to the land of Canaan – the land He had promised to give to the descendants of Abraham. Now, as Moses attempts to prepare the people to enter the land and conquer it, he warns them of the dangers associated with disobeying God’s commands. If they fail to keep God’s laws, they will experience a litany of curses that will leave them in a state of physical and moral degradation.

And Moses ends his bone-chilling description of the curses of God by letting them know that they will experience a complete reversal of fortunes, including their return to captivity in Egypt.

“And the Lord will bring you back in ships to Egypt, a journey that I promised that you should never make again; and there you shall offer yourselves for sale to your enemies as male and female slaves, but there will be no buyer.” – Deuteronomy 28:68 ESV

Think about how this news would have impacted the Israelites. They were standing on the border of Canaan, preparing to enter the land God had promised as their inheritance, and now Moses is telling them that failure to comply with God’s laws will result in their return to their former state as slaves in Egypt. But long before that happens, they will have to endure the same kind of pain and suffering the Egyptians had endured as a result of the ten plagues brought upon them by God.

“…the Lord will bring on you and your offspring extraordinary afflictions, afflictions severe and lasting, and sicknesses grievous and lasting. And he will bring upon you again all the diseases of Egypt, of which you were afraid, and they shall cling to you.” – Deuteronomy 28:59-60 ESV

God had punished the Egyptians for their refusal to let His people go. Repeatedly, Moses had appeared before Pharaoh, asking that he release the Israelites from their captivity. But each time, Pharaoh had refused. And his stubborn resistance to the will of God had been met with a series of plagues that grew in their intensity. Eventually, God brought upon the entire nation of Egypt the death of the firstborn, a devastating tragedy that struck every household, including Pharaoh’s.

And Moses warns that all this and more will happen to the Israelites – should they choose to live in rebellion to God.

One of the things we tend to overlook or downplay in these warnings from Moses is the extreme dichotomy they represent. Things would not be as they were meant to be. The promised land had been meant to be a place of rest. It was intended to be the polar opposite of their time spend in Egypt. In fact, when God had chosen Moses to be the one to deliver the people of Israel from captivity, He had told him:

“I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey…” – Exodus 3:7-8 ESV

Canaan was to be a place of fruitfulness, abundance, blessing, rest, and peace. And the first time thei Israelites had arrived at the border, they had chosen to reject God’s command to enter the land, out of fear of its inhabitant. And the author of Hebrews used that ocassion as a lesson for New Testament Christians.

“Today when you hear his voice,
    don’t harden your hearts
    as Israel did when they rebelled.”

And who was it who rebelled against God, even though they heard his voice? Wasn’t it the people Moses led out of Egypt? And who made God angry for forty years? Wasn’t it the people who sinned, whose corpses lay in the wilderness? And to whom was God speaking when he took an oath that they would never enter his rest? Wasn’t it the people who disobeyed him? So we see that because of their unbelief they were not able to enter his rest. – Hebrews 3:15-19 NLT

They were not allowed to “enter his rest.” Their rebellion resulted in their deaths in the wilderness. That generation would spend 40 years wandering in the wilderness, until each of them had died off, before the next generation would be given another opportunity to obey God and conquer the land.

And Moses has warned that second generation not to repeat the mistakes of their forefathers, or they too would find themselves being cast out of the land. They would go from enjoying God’s rest to experiencing slavery in Egypt again.

It was God’s will that the people of Israel “fear this glorious and awesome name, the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 28:58 ESV). And Moses reminds the Israelites, “the Lord took delight in doing you good and multiplying you” (Deuteronomy 28:63 ESV). But their disobedience would result in the polar opposite reaction from God.

“The Lord will take delight in bringing ruin upon you and destroying you.” – Deuteronomy 28:63 ESV

God would leave the Israelites scattered, demoralized, oppressed, weary, and suffering from “a trembling heart and failing eyes and a languishing soul” (Deuteronomy 28:65 ESV). Their hearts will be filled with dread. Their lives will be marked by regret, loss, and a longing for each day to come to an end. But the nighttime will be no better. The hours will drag by as they long for the new day to dawn. Then the miserable cycle of frustration and despair will repeat itself.

And Moses ends this dismal list of curses with a bleak prediction of Israel restored to captivity in Egypt – right back to where they started. They will be forced to watch as the promised land fades into the distance as they make their way back to Egypt as slaves. They will endure the shame and humiliation of a reverse exodus. And their lives will once again be marked by bondage, not freedom. There will be no more rest. They will enjoy no more rewards or blessings from God. All because they decided to disobey the law of God.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

When the Afterlife Becomes an Afterthought.

7 Light is sweet, and it is pleasant for the eyes to see the sun.

8 So if a person lives many years, let him rejoice in them all; but let him remember that the days of darkness will be many. All that comes is vanity.

9 Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. Walk in the ways of your heart and the sight of your eyes. But know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment.

10 Remove vexation from your heart, and put away pain from your body, for youth and the dawn of life are vanity. Ecclesiastes 11:7-10 ESV

For Christians, reading the words of Solomon found in the book of Ecclesiastes can be a bit disconcerting. After all, we place a high priority on eternity and heaven. The New Testament is replete with encouraging words regarding both. In fact, right before He ascended into heaven, Jesus told His disciples:

“Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, and trust also in me. 2 There is more than enough room in my Father’s home. If this were not so, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? 3 When everything is ready, I will come and get you, so that you will always be with me where I am.” – John 14:1-3 NLT

The apostle Paul wrote a great deal about the afterlife and always in glowing terms and with a great deal of eager anticipation. He told the believers in Corinth:

51 But let me reveal to you a wonderful secret. We will not all die, but we will all be transformed! 52 It will happen in a moment, in the blink of an eye, when the last trumpet is blown. For when the trumpet sounds, those who have died will be raised to live forever. And we who are living will also be transformed. 53 For our dying bodies must be transformed into bodies that will never die; our mortal bodies must be transformed into immortal bodies.

54 Then, when our dying bodies have been transformed into bodies that will never die… – 1 Corinthians 15:51-54 NLT

In his second letter to the same body of believers, he compared life on this earth in our physical bodies with the life to come, when we receive new, glorified bodies.

4 While we live in these earthly bodies, we groan and sigh, but it’s not that we want to die and get rid of these bodies that clothe us. Rather, we want to put on our new bodies so that these dying bodies will be swallowed up by life. 5 God himself has prepared us for this, and as a guarantee he has given us his Holy Spirit. – 2 Corinthians 5:4-5 NLT

And yet, all throughout the book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon seems to paint the afterlife in a negative light, almost as if it is something to avoid at all costs. How could this man, who had been given wisdom by God, and who had been called to lead the people of God, have such a dim view of eternal life? Part of what we must understand is that the Hebrews did not have a well-developed theology of heaven. Their concept of rewards, for instance, tended to focus on this life. Their understanding of the covenant relationship between God and His people was tied to earthly rewards and blessings. That’s why the viewed those who were wealthy as somehow blessed by God, and those who were poor or sick, as having been punished by God for some hidden sin they had committed. The great patriarch of the Hebrew faith, Abraham, had been blessed by God with flocks and herds, His reward was in this life. Solomon himself had been blessed by God with great wealth. It is not so much that the Hebrews did not believe in the afterlife, it is that they had no consistent idea of what it looked like. That was God’s domain. He alone knew what life after death held. And since men cannot see into the future, they were left to experience and enjoy all that this life had to offer – for as long as they could. The Torah, one of the most revered of all Jewish sacred texts, has little or nothing to say regarding the afterlife. The emphasis is placed on this life. And that is how Solomon has treated this entire book. 

Even in the closing verses of the final chapter of Ecclesiastes, Solomon returns to fear-filled view of death. He states:

So if a person lives many years, let him rejoice in them all; but let him remember that the days of darkness will be many. All that comes is vanity. – Ecclesiastes 11:8 ESV

Notice that he believes in some kind of existence after death, but he describes it as “days of darkness” and concludes that whatever comes after death will be vanity or a meaningless existence. Solomon understood that life carried with it the undeniable reality of a future judgment. He knew that God was holy and just. He recognized that there would be a day when God would mete out His judgment on all mankind, and no one could be fully assured how that would turn out. Solomon would have fully concurred with the words of the author of Hebrews: “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Hebrews 9:27 ESV). But what Solomon didn’t understand was the hope that the author of Hebrews had because of his faith in Christ. He immediately followed the previous statement with the encouraging, hope-filled words: “so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (Ecclesiastes 9:28 ESV). Solomon’s advice was:

Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. Walk in the ways of your heart and the sight of your eyes. But know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment. – Ecclesiastes 11:9 ESV

In other words, live your life. Have a good time. Enjoy all the pleasures and joys that life has to offer, but always remember that there will be a judgment. God will one day reward you for how you lived your life on this earth. That was Solomon’s perspective. We can only imagine how his theological thinking had been skewed by the influence of all the false gods he had embraced. His religious views had to have been a toxic blend of pagan beliefs and Jewish doctrine. He was a man who wasn’t really sure what he believed anymore, other than what he could see, touch, and taste. For Solomon, the unknown was nothing more than unknown. The afterlife was a mystery whose secrets were hidden from mere men. So, Solomon placed his emphasis on this life. He embraced each new day with a sense of hope, which is why he stated, “Light is sweet, and it is pleasant for the eyes to see the sun” (Ecclesiastes 11:7 ESV). Waking up was a positive to Solomon, because it meant you hadn’t died in your sleep. Remember what Solomon said earlier in his book: “There is hope only for the living. As they say, ‘It’s better to be a live dog than a dead lion!’” (Ecclesiastes 9:4 NLT). Solomon is an old man, sharing his views on life and all that he has learned during his many days under the sun. And his final words in this book are directed at the young. “ Remove vexation from your heart, and put away pain from your body, for youth and the dawn of life are vanity” (Ecclesiastes 11:10 ESV). In other words, stop worrying so much. Take care of yourself. Enjoy your youth while you can, because it is going to be gone before you know it. Like everything else in life, it is a vapor, here one day, gone the next. Before you know it, your youth will have been replaced by old age.

So, what do we do with all of this? How are we to respond to the words of Solomon. It seems that, far too often, we attempt to take the book of Ecclesiastes and treat it like his other book, Proverbs. We read Ecclesiastes, picking and choosing those verses or statements that have some kind of positive application to them. We seek out the wise sayings of Solomon about diligence, hard work, prudent investing, and the avoidance of foolish behavior. And there is nothing inherently wrong with that strategy. But the question we must ask is why the Spirit of God inspired Solomon to write this book in the first place. Why Solomon? And why was he prompted to write this book at the end of his life, not at the beginning? The book of Ecclesiastes provides us with a unvarnished glimpse into the life of a man who had it all, including a relationship with God. He had been raised by a man whom God described a man after His own heart. Solomon had been given every opportunity in life. He had been given the privilege of building the temple for God. He had been blessed with wisdom from God. But at some point in his life, Solomon walked away from God. He allowed himself to become obsessed with his possessions. He compromised his convictions. He made false gods equal value as the one true God. And if we are not careful, we can fall into the same trap. Even as believers in Christ, we can allow ourselves to be lulled into a sense of spiritual complacency and moral compromise, seeking for meaning and purpose in life from the things of this world. The book of Ecclesiastes was not meant to be a stand-alone reference for godly living. It is one book among 66 books that make up the entirety of God’s inspired Word. The Scriptures are to be read in their entirety, so that they can provide us with a well-balanced, Spirit-inspired understanding of God and our relationship with Him. It is essential that we take the views expressed by Solomon and compare and contrast them with those of the New Testament writers. When we read the words of the apostle John, found in his first epistle, we begin to get a clearer view of what it was that Solomon was missing in his book.

15 Do not love this world nor the things it offers you, for when you love the world, you do not have the love of the Father in you. 16 For the world offers only a craving for physical pleasure, a craving for everything we see, and pride in our achievements and possessions. These are not from the Father, but are from this world. 17 And this world is fading away, along with everything that people crave. But anyone who does what pleases God will live forever. – 1 John 2:15-17 NLT

This world is a wonderful place, created by God for our enjoyment. But it is fallen and suffering from the effects of sin. Everything has been marred by the fall, including mankind. God has provided us with tremendous blessings in this life. This planet provides us with incredible pleasures to be enjoyed as gifts from the hand of God. But we must never lose sight of the fact that there is something far greater to come. This world is not all there is. Our faith is in God and our hope is in what He has planned for us in the future. And that preferred future is available only through faith in His Son. And there is no better way to summarize the final words of Solomon than by listening to the words of Jesus Himself.

16 “For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. 17 God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him.

18 “There is no judgment against anyone who believes in him. But anyone who does not believe in him has already been judged for not believing in God’s one and only Son. 19 And the judgment is based on this fact: God’s light came into the world, but people loved the darkness more than the light, for their actions were evil. 20 All who do evil hate the light and refuse to go near it for fear their sins will be exposed. 21 But those who do what is right come to the light so others can see that they are doing what God wants.” – John 3:16-21 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Between Two Worlds.

22 Up to this word they listened to him. Then they raised their voices and said, “Away with such a fellow from the earth! For he should not be allowed to live.” 23 And as they were shouting and throwing off their cloaks and flinging dust into the air, 24 the tribune ordered him to be brought into the barracks, saying that he should be examined by flogging, to find out why they were shouting against him like this. 25 But when they had stretched him out for the whips, Paul said to the centurion who was standing by, “Is it lawful for you to flog a man who is a Roman citizen and uncondemned?” 26 When the centurion heard this, he went to the tribune and said to him, “What are you about to do? For this man is a Roman citizen.” 27 So the tribune came and said to him, “Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?” And he said, “Yes.” 28 The tribune answered, “I bought this citizenship for a large sum.” Paul said, “But I am a citizen by birth.” 29 So those who were about to examine him withdrew from him immediately, and the tribune also was afraid, for he realized that Paul was a Roman citizen and that he had bound him.

30 But on the next day, desiring to know the real reason why he was being accused by the Jews, he unbound him and commanded the chief priests and all the council to meet, and he brought Paul down and set him before them. Acts 22:22-301 ESV

Paul, having been saved by Roman soldiers from being beaten to death by the Jewish mob, had been given an opportunity to address his accusers. And as Paul had shared his conversion story with them, they had given him their undivided attention, until he relayed the words spoken to Him by Jesus: “Go, for I will send you far away to the Gentiles” (Acts 22:21 ESV). It was at that very moment that the crowd lost their composure yet again. As soon as they heard speak those words, they responded, “Away with such a fellow from the earth! For he should not be allowed to live” (Acts 22:22 ESV). But was it that caused this extreme reaction? Why had they listened so quietly and intently up until this particular moment? There were probably a number of factors involved. First of all, Paul was claiming to have heard directly from Jesus Himself, the very one the Jews had plotted to have put to death by the Romans. Paul referred to him as “Lord”, a designation most often reserved for God Himself. On top of that, Paul infers that Jesus told him to take the message of salvation to the Gentiles. This would have angered the believing Jews in the audience, who were already upset with Paul because he had been converting Gentiles without requiring them to submit to the rite of circumcision and obey the Mosaic law. It is important to remember that part of what had gotten Paul in trouble in the first place was the accusation that he had brought Gentiles into the Court of Israel. This would have been a crime punishable by death. When Paul had showed up at the Temple to complete his ceremonial cleansing, some Jews from Asia had seen him and riled up the crowds against him.

“This is the man who is teaching everyone everywhere against the people and the law and this place. Moreover, he even brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place.” – Acts 21:28 ESV

So, when Paul mentioned that Jesus had spoken to him and had commanded him to take the gospel concerning the Messiah to the Gentiles, the Jews became enraged. Those were unbelieving Jews were upset that Paul spoke of Jesus as the Messiah and Lord. Those in the crowd who were believing Jews were angry because they believed that Gentiles must first become law-abiding Jews before they could receive salvation in Christ. Both groups were angry with Paul. So much so, that Luke describes them as “shouting and throwing off their cloaks and flinging dust into the air” (Acts 22:23 ESV). What a scene. Complete confusion and chaos, mixed with uncontrollable rage. And the Roman tribune ordered Paul to be taken to the barracks inside the Fortress of Antonio, which was immediately outside the temple grounds. His plan was to flog Paul until he got to the truth of what was really going on.

It's interesting to note that Paul allowed the soldiers to go so far as to have him stretched out, ready to be flogged, before he spoke up and revealed his status as a Roman citizen. It is as if Paul was going to let them get right up to the point of no return before he stopped them from committing a crime. This would certainly get their attention. And Luke proves that this little, last-minute revelation by Paul had its desired impact.

The soldiers who were about to interrogate Paul quickly withdrew when they heard he was a Roman citizen, and the commander was frightened because he had ordered him bound and whipped. – Acts 29 NLT

They had been stopped in the nick of time. As a Roman citizen, Paul was legally protected from scourging. It was against the law for any Roman to undergo this kind of punishment without access to due process. Paul had been accused, but nothing had been proven. He had been arrested, but there had been no trial. And the very fact that the Roman tribune had commanded Paul to be bond by chains, was a violation of Paul’s rights as a Roman citizen.

The Roman commander was surprised that Paul had Roman citizenship, because he had seen in him in the temple and had heard his testimony. “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated at the feet of Gamaliel according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers” (Acts 22:3 ESV). And because Paul was a Jews, the Roman tribune had just assumed that he was not a Roman citizen. He even hinted that Paul must have purchased his citizenship somewhere along the way. But Paul assured him that he had been born a Roman citizen, with all the rights and privileges that designation brings.

While the Roman tribune had learned of Paul’s Roman citizenship, he was still in the dark as to why Paul was being accused by the Jews and what had prompted them to try and kill him in the first place. So, the next day, he arranged a meeting with the religious leadership.

30 But on the next day, desiring to know the real reason why he was being accused by the Jews, he unbound him and commanded the chief priests and all the council to meet, and he brought Paul down and set him before them. – Acts 22:30 ESV

This was going to set up a unique situation, in which Paul, a Jew and Christ-follower, would find himself standing before the Jewish chief priests and religious leaders, as well as a representative of the Roman government. He would have his feet firmly planted in two different worlds, both of which would prove integral to his entire life and ministry. Paul was a devout Jew and proud of his Hebrew heritage. He was a Pharisee and a former student of one of the leading rabbis of the day. He was knowledgeable of the Hebrew Scriptures and highly intelligent. And yet, Paul was comfortable in the pagan world as well, easily able to mix and mingle with people from all walks of life and from every imaginable ethnic background. Paul was comfortable within the context of Jerusalem, but he would one day find himself living in Rome, under house arrest, and sharing the gospel with all those he had a chance to meet, including his Roman guards.

In this scene, we get a glimpse of God’s sovereign hand as He orchestrated all the details of Paul’s life, from his birth into a Jewish home to his inheritance of a Roman citizenship. What if that had not been the case? What if Paul had not been a Roman citizen? He would have been flogged severely, a punishment that left its victim disfigured for life and, at time, dead. God had preordained Paul’s entire life story, from beginning to end. His training in the school of Gamaliel had equipped him with a tremendous understanding of Judaism and the Hebrew Scriptures. His status as a Pharisee gave him an unparalleled understanding of the Mosaic law. His childhood spent in Tarsus, the capital city of the Roman province of Cilicia, would have provided Paul first-hand experience with the Roman way of life. He was a man adept at living in two different worlds. And yet, Paul would live his life with the attitude that his real citizenship was elsewhere. He reminded the believers in Philippi, “we are citizens of heaven, where the Lord Jesus Christ lives. And we are eagerly waiting for him to return as our Savior” (Philippians 3:20 NLT). Paul was comfortable living in two worlds, while keeping his mind set on the Kingdom to come. He had been specially prepared by God for his life and ministry, having been born and raised a Jew, inherited his Roman citizenship, and having received a theological education that was second to none. He was God’s man for this moment in time.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Threads In God's Tapestry.

Now when the virgins were gathered together the second time, Mordecai was sitting at the king's gate. Esther had not made known her kindred or her people, as Mordecai had commanded her, for Esther obeyed Mordecai just as when she was brought up by him. In those days, as Mordecai was sitting at the king's gate, Bigthan and Teresh, two of the king's eunuchs, who guarded the threshold, became angry and sought to lay hands on King Ahasuerus. And this came to the knowledge of Mordecai, and he told it to Queen Esther, and Esther told the king in the name of Mordecai. When the affair was investigated and found to be so, the men were both hanged on the gallows. And it was recorded in the book of the chronicles in the presence of the king. – Esther 2:19-23 ESV

Esther has been crowned the new queen. Her lot in life has changed dramatically. But she has a potentially dangerous secret she is hiding from the king. She is a Hebrew. She is part of the remnant of Jews taken captive by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon when defeated Judah and destroyed the city of Jerusalem. When the Persians overthrew the Babylonians, the Jews remained in their captive state, slowly acclimating to the foreign culture around them and being assimilated into the ethnically diverse society of Persia. As they had in Egypt during their captivity there, the Jews continued to marry and have children, and as a result, their numbers increased. But for some undisclosed reason, Mordecai, Esther’s uncle, had counseled her to keep her Hebrew identity hidden from the king. We are not told the motivation behind Mordecai’s advice to his young ward, but he consistently warned her to keep her identity hidden, even after being crowned the new queen. Perhaps Mordecai was well-acquainted with the king’s reputation for fickleness and feared he might reject Esther as unfit for her role as queen. It almost seems that Mordecai had a sort of sixth-sense that led him to believe there was something greater going on here than met the eye. Throughout the story, Mordecai appears to know that this is not a case of good fortune, but the sovereign hand of God.

We are told in verse 19 that there was a second wave of virgins gathered into the king’s palace. The most logical explanation seems to be that the king so enjoyed the original beauty competition that had resulted in the discovery of Esther, that he decided to do it again. Keep in mind that the young women who didn’t win the queen’s crown were still permanent occupants of the king’s harem. And from all we have seen of King Xerxe’s behavior so far, he was used to have the best and the most of everything. So, just because he had a new queen didn’t mean he was going to stop adding more virgins to his collection. But the real reason this verse is included is to let us know that some time has passed. Some commentators believe that as much as five years may have transpired since Esther was crowned queen. We are also told that Mordecai was “sitting at the king’s gate” (Esther 2:19 ESV). This is usually a reference to a position of authority. Since the time that Esther had become queen. Mordecai had evidently received a commission as a government official. He was on the government payroll, perhaps as a representative of the Hebrew population. At this point in the story, the Jews were no longer being treated as slaves, but had become a part of the multi-ethnic makeup of the culture of Susa. There would have been people from all of the various nations that were now under Persian rule, from Ethiopia all the way to Egypt. So Mordecai was most likely a representative of some kind, acting on behalf of the crown.

And it just so happens, that as a part of his official capacity, Mordecai was at the king’s gate, when he overheard a plot to assassinate the king. It seems that Bigthan and Teresh, two of the king's eunuchs, who had confidential access to the king, had become upset with him and were planning to do him in. But when Mordecai heard their plans, he relayed them to Esther, who then informed the king. This incredible case of good timing will prove to be fortuitous, not just for the king, but for Mordecai and the people of God. Bigthan and Teresh are executed and Mordecai’s role in exposing the plot is recorded in the official historical chronicles of the king. No reward is given. No recognition for a job well done is forthcoming. Mordecai just happened to be in the right place at the right time and heard what was being planned. His relationship with Esther, the queen, afforded him the opportunity to get this news to the king in a timely fashion. And the result was that the king’s life was spared. But all Mordecai got for his troubles was a line in chronicles of the king.

But God is not done. The story is far from over. This seemingly disparate events are all part of an intricate tapestry that God is weaving. Esther has become queen of Persia. Mordecai has become an official in the king’s government. These two obscure, seemingly insignificant individuals are being used by God to prepare for an even greater, untold story. What we are witnessing is the butterfly effect lived out in real life. Esther’s selection to join the king’s harem has had a far greater impact than anyone, herself included, could have ever imagined. We are not told how Mordecai came to his position in the king’s government, but the inference is that his relatively unimportant role was going to have a dramatic influence on future events. It is so easy for us to discount what is happening in our lives and dismiss our importance in the grand scheme of things. As Christians, we can convince ourselves that we are insignificant and lacking in the ability to influence the larger culture around us. And yet, the story of Esther is meant to remind us that no one is insignificant or unimportant when they are being used by God. The disciples of Jesus were all relative nobodies. They were not movers and shakers or members of the religious elite. They were simple, common men who had spent their lives as common laborers and fishermen. And when Jesus chose them, they each had to have wondered, “Why me?” They had no idea just how significant their lives were going to be in the history of the world. And we have no idea how God is going to use us to accomplish His divine will in the world. Esther was just a young, orphaned Jewish girl living in a pagan country with her uncle Mordecai. And Mordecai was just another Jewish man, trying to care for his family and make ends meet in a society that was opposed to his religious beliefs. But God was going to use these two individuals in ways they could have never imagined. The events of their lives were being directed by God Almighty. The thing we must always remember is that the story is not yet done. God is not yet finished. We cannot see the finished tapestry that God is weaving or how the particular colors of our life’s events fit into the overall results. But God knows. And we can trust Him.

 

 

 

A Mystery Revealed.

For this reason I, Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles — assuming that you have heard of the stewardship of God's grace that was given to me for you, how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I have written briefly. When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. – Ephesians 3:1-6 ESV

Something once hidden, but now revealed. That is what Paul means when he speaks of the mystery of Christ. In the Old Testament, the Jews knew of and longed for the coming Messiah, but they viewed Him as the Savior of Israel alone. He was to be their king and redeemer, much like King David had been, leading them to great victories over their enemies and back into prominence as a nation. Any relationship between their Messiah and the Gentile nations would have been in the form of military victories over them and nothing more. The thought of the Messiah coming as the Savior of all mankind never crossed their minds. The only way a Gentile could partake of the blessings of Israel was through conversion to their faith, including circumcision and the rigorous keeping of the law of Moses. In the book of Exodus, God gave the people of Israel instructions regarding the “strangers” or non-Jews who had left Egypt with them. “If a stranger shall sojourn with you and would keep the Passover to the Lord, let all his males be circumcised. Then he may come near and keep it; he shall be as a native of the land. But no uncircumcised person shall eat of it. There shall be one law for the native and for the stranger who sojourns among you” (Exodus 12:48-49 ESV). While Gentiles could and did convert to Judaism in the Old Testament, it was relatively rare. The requirements for conversion were rigorous and kept many Gentiles from becoming fully-functioning members of the household of Israel.

That’s where the mystery comes in. Paul was commissioned by Jesus Himself to reveal to the Gentiles that they now had access to God. They could worship Yahweh, the God of the Jews, but it would not require conversion or circumcision. Any requirement to keep the law of Moses had been eliminated. But what Paul was preaching was not conversion to Judaism, but entrance into the Kingdom of God through faith in Jesus Christ. He was sharing the good news of salvation made available to both Jews and Gentiles because of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. In his letter to the Romans, Paul described the gospel as “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith’” (Romans 1:16-17 ESV).

With the coming of Christ, access to God was made available to all men through one means: Faith. It is not that faith was a new concept or that prior to Christ men had to gain access to God through works or the keeping of the law. The writer of Hebrews makes this clear in chapter 11. There he describes the Old Testament saints who “by faith” believed in the promises of God and were declared righteous by God. “For by it [faith] the people of old received their commendation” (Hebrews 11:2 ESV). He revealed that “without faith it is impossible to please him [God[, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Ephesians 11:6 ESV). Faith has always been God’s means by which men draw near to Him. And He sent His Son in order to make the life of faith available to all – Jews and Gentiles alike. Paul writes, “This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Ephesians 3:6 ESV). From the day of Pentecost forward, the church became the home of God’s people, those who had placed their faith in His Son. The church of God became the holy temple of God containing people from every tribe, nation and tongue. As Paul expressed earlier in his letter, “you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God,  built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit” (Ephesians 2:19-22 ESV).

The church of Jesus Christ is the dwelling place of God. It contains those who worship God as a result of the access provided to them by the sacrificial death of Christ on the cross. It is their common faith in Christ and His death on their behalf that provides them with the righteousness they need to come into God’s presence. No one earns their way into God’s throne room. No one merits God’s favor or escapes His judgment due to their own efforts. As Paul state earlier: “Now all of us can come to the Father through the same Holy Spirit because of what Christ has done for us” (Ephesians 2:18 NLT). And as we will see just a few verses later: “Because of Christ and our faith in him, we can now come boldly and confidently into God's presence” (Ephesians 3:12 NLT).

None of this infers that God is done with the Jews or that the church has somehow replaced the people of Israel as God’s chosen people. We live in the church age. This is part of God’s plan for this period of redemptive history. But the day is coming when God will fulfill all His promises to Israel. He has not forgotten them. He is faithful and will keep every promise He has made to them. But at the current time, we are experiencing the mystery of the church – Jew and Gentile living together as the body of Christ, sharing a common faith in our crucified and resurrection Savior. We are the beneficiaries of God’s amazing grace and mercy. He has made a way for us to be restored to a right relationship with Him, based solely on His grace as revealed in His Son and made possible by faith.

 

Surpassing Glory.

Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such glory that the Israelites could not gaze at Moses' face because of its glory, which was being brought to an end, will not the ministry of the Spirit have even more glory? For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, the ministry of righteousness must far exceed it in glory. Indeed, in this case, what once had glory has come to have no glory at all, because of the glory that surpasses it. For if what was being brought to an end came with glory, much more will what is permanent have glory. – 2 Corinthians 3:7-11 ESV

In this chapter, Paul is contrasting what he calls the ministry of condemnation, or the law, and the ministry of righteousness, or that of the Spirit. In doing so he refers back to the occasion when Moses received the stone tablets containing the Ten Commandments from God. Over in the Book of Exodus we read, “When Moses came down from Mount Sinai, with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand as he came down from the mountain, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. Aaron and all the people of Israel saw Moses, and behold, the skin of his face shone, and they were afraid to come near him” (Exodus 34:29-30 ESV). As a result of his time spent in the presence of God, Moses walked away physically changed. He literally glowed. And it was so disconcerting that the people were afraid to come near him. So Moses solved the problem by wearing a veil over his face. Every time he met with God, he took the veil off. When he returned to the people, he would put it back on. But Paul tells us the veil became a replacement for the real thing. He kept wearing the veil even long after the glory had faded. “We are not like Moses, who put a veil over his face so the people of Israel would not see the glory, even though it was destined to fade away” (2 Corinthians 3:13 NLT). Verse seven says that glory “was being brought to an end.” It was temporary, not permanent. Just as the ministry of the law was meant to be temporary and not permanent. The law couldn't save. It could only reveal man's desperate need for a Savior. It could provide a standard by which man was to live, but no means to do so. Which is why Paul wrote, “The law of Moses was unable to save us because of the weakness of our sinful nature. So God did what the law could not do. He sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin's control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins” (Romans 8:3 NLT). 

The writer of Hebrews echoes this same sentiment. “The old system under the law of Moses was only a shadow, a dim preview of the good things to come, not the good things themselves. The sacrifices under that system were repeated again and again, year after year, but they were never able to provide perfect cleansing for those who came to worship” (Hebrews 10:1 NLT). The former glory of the law, revealing the righteousness of God to man, has been surpassed or superseded by the glory of God as revealed through the Spirit of God. The Holy Spirit makes it possible for men to live righteously. We are no longer reliant on human effort alone in our attempt to please God. We enjoy the surpassing glory of God's indwelling Spirit. Ours is not some kind of external glow like Moses had. Long after the glow began to fade from his face, Moses was still putting on the veil. He was wearing a mask. The glory he experienced was impermanent. But ours is lasting. Our salvation is assured. The Holy Spirit's presence in us is permanent. And none of it is based on works or human effort. It is solely, completely dependent upon faith. “This Good News tells us how God makes us right in his sight. This is accomplished from start to finish by faith. As the Scriptures say, ‘It is through faith that a righteous person has life’” (Romans 1:17 NLT). The law couldn't save. It could only condemn. And yet, it was considered glorious. It came directly from the hand of God. And Moses, the one who received it from God, was so impacted by it all, that he glowed. He carried the glory of God in his hands and on his face. But that glory was never meant to last. Referring to laws concerning food, festivals, holy days and Sabbaths, Paul wrote, “For these rules are only shadows of the reality yet to come. And Christ himself is that reality” (Colossians 2:17 NLT). He goes on to say, “So why do you keep on following the rules of the world, such as, ‘Don’t handle! Don’t taste! Don’t touch!’? Such rules are mere human teachings about things that deteriorate as we use them. These rules may seem wise because they require strong devotion, pious self-denial, and severe bodily discipline. But they provide no help in conquering a person’s evil desires” (Colossians 2:20-23 NLT). The presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer is a surpassing glory. It’s internal, not external. It’s permanent, not temporary. It’s a sure thing, not a shadow. God has written His message of righteousness, “not on tablets of stone, but on tablets of human hearts” (2 Corinthians 3:3 ESV). We have the capacity to live, think, and act like Christ. We aren’t stuck trying to live righteously on our own. We have the Spirit of God empowering us to live like the Son of God. Which is why Paul can say, “So all of us who have had that veil removed can see and reflect the glory of the Lord. And the Lord—who is the Spirit—makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image” (2 Corinthians 3:18 NLT).

Those Who Are Spiritual.

Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. – 1 Corinthians 2:12-13 ESV

God is mysterious, transcendent, holy, perfectly righteous and completely invisible to the human eye. He is an non-created spirit being who has no beginning and end. He is all-powerful, all-knowing, unbound by space or time, and inaccessible by man unless He makes Himself known. But that is the amazing thing. He has made Himself known. He has revealed Himself through creation. “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made” (Romans 1:19-20 ESV). But over the centuries, God has made Himself known in many other ways. He spoke to Abram in Ur. He guided him, directed him, and promised to make of him a great nation. God had personal encounters with Isaac and Jacob. He personally cared and provided for Joseph. He appeared to Moses and used him to release the people of Israel from captivity. God spoke through prophets. He used judges. But His greatest revelation of Himself was through the incarnation of His Son. One of the titles of Jesus was Emmanuel, which means “God with us.” Paul tells us, “He is the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15 ESV). John writes, “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (John 1:18 ESV). 

Jesus Christ, the Son of God, became a man and took on human flesh. He lived among men. He ministered to men. He healed them. He taught them. But the greatest accomplishment of Jesus' earthly life was His sacrificial death on the behalf of men. He died so that we might live. God sacrificed His own sinless sin so that men might be made right with Him. And those who have accepted the sacrifice of His Son's death as payment for their sins received another manifestation of God's presence: His Spirit. The Spirit of God has come to dwell within all those who have placed their faith in Jesus Christ as their sin-substitute and Savior. And Paul would have us consider the staggering significance of that reality. “Now we have received … the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God” (1 Corinthians 2:12 ESV). This may sound a bit sacrilegious, but the Holy Spirit within us is like a radio receiver that allows us to pick up the spiritual wave lengths broadcast to us by God. Think of it like having a radio in your can that can receive Sirius radio signals. If you don't have one, you can't hear what is being broadcast. Without the Spirit, we would find it impossible to pick up and make out what God is saying to us. His Word would be impossible to understand. His presence, while all around us, would be oblivious to us. Paul explains why. The Spirit interprets spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. And we are only spiritual because we have the Spirit within us. Our spirituality is not something we have earned or attained. It has been given to us by God, just like our salvation was. We have received the gift of salvation and the gift of the Holy Spirit. And His presence within us makes it possible for us to hear from and understand God. The bottom line, according to Paul, is that “no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God” (1 Corinthians 2:11 ESV). But thankfully, we have His Spirit within us. And we CAN understand the thoughts of God. We CAN comprehend His Word. We CAN hear from Him and communicate with Him.

When we read the Scriptures, we are not on our own. We do not have to rely on our intellect alone. We have been given the Holy Spirit to help us hear from God as He speaks to us through His written Word. That is what makes the Scriptures so powerful and potentially life changing. The write of Hebrews describes the Scriptures as “alive and powerful. It is sharper than the sharpest two-edged sword, cutting between soul and spirit, between joint and marrow. It exposes our innermost thoughts and desires” (Hebrews 4:12 NLT). The Word of God is alive to us because the Holy Spirit lives within us. He is the one who makes us spiritual beings. Rather than being limited to our physical and mental capacities alone, we have the ability to receive spiritual truths directly from God Himself, all because we have the Spirit of God living within us. And Paul, quoting from Isaiah 64:4, provides us with the incredible nature of that reality. “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined what God has prepared for those who love him.” We can't even begin to imagine what God has to show us, teach us, reveal to us, and do for us. But because we have the Spirit of God within us, we can experience and understand the unimaginable and unknowable – the things freely given us by God.

Trust Me.

Behold, the siege mounds have come up to the city to take it, and because of sword and famine and pestilence the city is given into the hands of the Chaldeans who are fighting against it. What you spoke has come to pass, and behold, you see it. Yet you, O Lord God, have said to me, “Buy the field for money and get witnesses”—though the city is given into the hands of the Chaldeans. – Jeremiah 32:24-25 ESV Jeremiah 32:17-25

Things could not have looked any bleaker than they did when Jeremiah prayed this prayer. The armies of Babylon were camped outside the city of Jerusalem, siege mounds surrounded the walls, and disease and famine were commonplace within them. God was bringing the judgment Jeremiah had long warned would come if the people did not repent and return to Him. And yet, in the midst of the eminent threat of defeat and the looming reality of captivity, God had given Jeremiah a small glimpse of what was to come. He had instructed Jeremiah to buy a field. In essence, He was asking Jeremiah to invest in the future of Israel. It was a case of insider trading, because God knew something Jeremiah could not have known. God had already given Jeremiah a heads up about what was to come. “For thus says the Lord: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29:10-11 ESV). But now God wanted Jeremiah to have some personal stock in the reality of that promise. He wanted Jeremiah to put his money where his mouth had been and invest in the future of Israel, based on nothing more than the promise of God.

That seems to be how God works with us so often. He had told Noah to build an ark and fill it with animals, when there wasn't even enough water to float a boat anywhere on the planet at that time. He asked Abram to leave his homeland and head to an unknown destination, all based on what had to sound to Abram like an impossible dream. God had David anointed the next king of Israel, but then allowed him to spend the next years of his life running from Saul, the current king and resident madman. Jesus chose His twelve disciples, told them that He was going to establish His kingdom on earth, and then they had to stand by and watch as He was crucified on a Roman cross. The promises of God don't always appear as we might expect them. They don't always work out according to our timeline or in the manner we might prefer. But faith is about trusting God. The author of Hebrews describes it this way: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1 ESV). Assurance and conviction in the unseen and, as yet, unfulfilled. It is a determined belief in the reality of what has yet to take place. God was asking Jeremiah to put shoe leather to his faith and some cash behind his conviction. All based on nothing more than the word of God.

And as soon as Jeremiah finished his prayer, God would respond with a rhetorical question: “Behold, I am the Lord, the God of all flesh. Is anything too hard for me?” (Jeremiah 32:26 ESV). In a way, He was asking Jeremiah, “Don't you trust me?” He knew that this was all a lot for Jeremiah to take in, so He gave Jeremiah some further assurances. “Behold, I will gather them from all the countries to which I drove them in my anger and my wrath and in great indignation. I will bring them back to this place, and I will make them dwell in safety. And they shall be my people, and I will be their God” (Jeremiah 32:37-38 ESV). He let Jeremiah know that His word concerning the punishment of Judah was be fulfilled, but that would not be the last word regarding their fate. He had more in store. He had a timeline and a plan in place that would assure their restoration to the land. And God would keep that plan perfectly and faithfully.

Sometimes all we have are the promises of God, and they can appear vague and distant to us. We may not fully understand the nature of those promises or understand how God is going to bring them about. But He asks us to trust Him. He asks us to have assurance and conviction, based on nothing more than His character and reputation. God told Jeremiah, “Just as I have brought all this great disaster upon this people, so I will bring upon them all the good that I promise them” (Jeremiah 32:42 ESV). He had kept His word regarding the coming destruction of Judah, so why would He not keep His word concerning their future restoration? God doesn't lie. He doesn't make promises and not keep them. God had promised to send the Messiah and He did – in the form of His own Son. He has promised eternal life to those who believe in His Son. He has promised to send His Son again. He has promised to restore righteousness to the world. He has promised to put an end to sin, death, sorrow, pain, and suffering. Will we trust Him? Are we willing to invest ourselves in the present based on the future promises of God? Is anything too difficult for our God? Can He bring about what He has promised? Will He do what He has said He will do? Faith operates on the basis of trust and hope in the fact that He can and He will.

The Blood.

This is he who came by water and blood – Jesus Christ; not by the water only but by the water and the blood. – 1 John 5:6 ESV 1 John 5:6-12

It is fascinating to me that so many Christians today want to reject any image of God as judgmental or wrathful. They cannot stand the idea of God being somehow associated with the events found in the Old Testament. So what they do is re-imagine the Bible, seeing it not as the divine Word of God, but as the writings of men. They portray it as the self-revelation of men, not the self-revelation of God. It is nothing more than men, in their unenlightened state, attempting to portray God. Surrounded by pagan imagery of gods who were characterized by wrath and vengeance, and who rewarded good behavior and punished “sin,” they mistakenly placed these same characteristics on God. But as their relationship with Him progressed, so did their understanding. So by the time Jesus came along, He was able to give them an enlightened view of God as loving, kind, gracious and merciful.

But here's the rub. That same God who Jesus introduced to the Jews of His day was the same God who required His own Son to die a cruel death on a Roman cross. Jesus had to sacrifice His life in order to pay for the sins of man. That had always been the way God worked. The Old Testament was a foreshadowing of the coming of Christ. In fact, the author of Hebrews spends a great deal of time talking about the Old Testament sacrificial system – a bloody, primitive-like and ritualistic collection of gruesome animal butcherings – and ties them to the death of Jesus. In referring to the sacrificial system, the author writes,    “For without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness” (Hebrews 9:22 NLT). This was a God-ordained system of sacrifice that was intended to provide remission from or forgiveness for the sins of the people. To us it sounds barbaric and cruel. But there was a divine purpose behind God's plan. “That is why even the first covenant was put into effect with the blood of an animal. For after Moses had read each of God’s commandments to all the people, he took the blood of calves and goats, along with water, and sprinkled both the book of God’s law and all the people, using hyssop branches and scarlet wool. Then he said, ‘This blood confirms the covenant God has made with you.’ And in the same way, he sprinkled blood on the Tabernacle and on everything used for worship. In fact, according to the law of Moses, nearly everything was purified with blood” (Hebrews 9:18-22 NLT). Every year, thousands of innocent animals had to be sacrificed in order for the sins of the people to be atoned for. Their sins, including sins of omission and commission, inadvertent and premeditated, known and unknown, had to be paid for, or their was no forgiveness. God had a sacrifice or offering for every imaginable sin. Why? Because He is loving and gracious. He wanted His people to have a relationship with Him. But He knew that they were incapable of living sinless lives. He knew they could not remain faithful. So He instituted a system by which they could have their sins paid for and forgiven. But this was a temporary solution. It was a type of something far greater to come. “That is why the Tabernacle and everything in it, which were copies of things in heaven, had to be purified by the blood of animals. But the real things in heaven had to be purified with far better sacrifices than the blood of animals” (Hebrews 9:23 NLT). For God to restore men to a right relationship with Himself, a greater sacrifice was required. A more precious, permanent and costly offering was going to be necessary.

Again, the author of Hebrews provides us with insight into these seemingly confusing and difficult to understand things. “The old system under the law of Moses was only a shadow, a dim preview of the good things to come, not the good things themselves. The sacrifices under that system were repeated again and again, year after year, but they were never able to provide perfect cleansing for those who came to worship. If they could have provided perfect cleansing, the sacrifices would have stopped, for the worshipers would have been purified once for all time, and their feelings of guilt would have disappeared. But instead, those sacrifices actually reminded them of their sins year after year. For it is not possible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Hebrews 10:1-4 NLT). The sacrificial system was perpetual because the sins of the people were ongoing. The whole system was designed to show them their sins and remind them of their need for God. The blood of the bulls and goats was a temporary, impermanent fix to their problem. Something greater was needed. “For Christ did not enter into a holy place made with human hands, which was only a copy of the true one in heaven. He entered into heaven itself to appear now before God on our behalf. And he did not enter heaven to offer himself again and again, like the high priest here on earth who enters the Most Holy Place year after year with the blood of an animal. If that had been necessary, Christ would have had to die again and again, ever since the world began. But now, once for all time, he has appeared at the end of the age to remove sin by his own death as a sacrifice” (Hebrews 9:24-26 NLT).

Jesus died so that we might live. He gave His life so that we might have eternal life. His blood was shed for the permanent forgiveness of mankind's sins. But in order for that sacrifice to be effective, it must be received. Men must acknowledge their sin and their need for a Savior. They must believe that Jesus is the Son of God, sent by His Father to pay for the sins of the world. Peter makes it quite clear: “you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for the sake of you who through him are believers in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God” (1 Peter 1:18-21 NLT). What kind of God would sacrifice His own Son to pay for sins He didn't commit? A loving, gracious, merciful, kind God. The God of Adam, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, Solomon, and every other Old Testament character. The God of the Bible. The God of creation. The God of the universe who is out to redeem His creation from the ravages of sin and death, and who chose to do it through the loving sacrifice of His own Son.

The Folly of What Is Fading.

And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever. – 1 John 2:17 ESV

This world is temporary and transient. But for most of us, it has become our only perception of what is real. Here in this world we can see, touch, smell and experience what appears to be reality. We can enjoy a good meal, watch a beautiful sunset, feel the love of another human being, and experience a thousand other moments of legitimate joy and pleasure. And there is nothing wrong with any of those things, until we allow them to replace or distract us from what is truly real. John's whole point in this passage has been to warn believers of the danger of the desires of the flesh, the desires of the eyes and the pride we get from our possessions or positions. When we turn to those things in order to find our sense of worth and value or to feed our need for self-importance and self-indulgence, we have lost sight of reality. Those things we lust after, long for, and find satisfaction in are temporary and not timeless. John says they are fading away. Not only that, he indicates that our desire for them should be diminishing as well. As believers, we should have a growing sense of eternity, that our destiny is out ahead of us. This world is not our true home. We truly are just passing through on our way to somewhere else.

The writer of Hebrews spoke of this very attitude when he wrote about the saints of the Old Testament. “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:8-10 ESV). Abraham never got to live in a city with foundations – on this earth. But he does now. His faith was in something he couldn't see. He trusted the promises of God in spite of the fact that those promises so often appeared to be unfulfilled. The writer of Hebrews goes on to say, “These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland.  If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Hebrews 11:13-16 ESV). Moses, Abraham, Sarah, Abel, Isaac, and Jacob – they all lived by faith, setting their hopes on things they could not see. “Faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us assurance about things we cannot see” (Hebrews 11:1 NLT).

The danger we all face is to confuse our present circumstances with future reality. Nothing here lasts. New cars become old ones. They lose their value as soon as you drive them off the lot. New outfits become outdated in no time at all. New homes slowly fall apart. New toys lose their novelty and appeal. Even the bodies we live in are growing old and giving out on us. But Paul would remind us that these bodies are indeed temporary. They are not built to last. But we are. We are eternal creatures. Our souls are eternal and not temporary. Paul refers to these bodies as tents – much like what Abraham lived in. They are not our permanent home. “For we know that when this earthly tent we live in is taken down (that is, when we die and leave this earthly body), we will have a house in heaven, an eternal body made for us by God himself and not by human hands.” (2 Corinthians 5:1 NLT). We are to live in this world with a sense of expectation in what is to come. Like Abraham, we are to see ourselves as temporary residents here. Our home is elsewhere. “So we are always confident, even though we know that as long as we live in these bodies we are not at home with the Lord. For we live by believing and not by seeing. Yes, we are fully confident, and we would rather be away from these earthly bodies, for then we will be at home with the Lord. So whether we are here in this body or away from this body, our goal is to please him” (2 Corinthians 5:6-9 NLT).

Our goal is to please Him. That is exactly John's point when he says, “whoever does the will of God abides forever” (1 John 2:17 ESV). We are to live in this world with a determination to do what is pleasing to God, not ourselves. We are eternal creatures. We have an eternal destiny. This world is fading along with its desires. Which is why Paul warns us to live our time here wisely and carefully, with a full awareness that how we live our life in the here and now directly is directly tied to our view of the hereafter. “For we must all stand before Christ to be judged. We will each receive whatever we deserve for the good or evil we have done in this earthly body” (2 Corinthians 5:10 NLT).

God's Perfect Timing.

Esther 1-2, Hebrews 13

The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me. Hebrews 13:6 ESV

Meanwhile, back in Babylon. While Nehemiah and the Jews had returned to Judah and were busy rebuilding the walls of the city and recommitting themselves to remain faithful to God, there were still Jews who had chosen to remain in exile in Babylon. The story of Esther takes place during the reign of King Ahasuerus and covers the same period of time. The King Xerxes of Nehemiah is the same person as King Ahasuerus of the book of Esther. Xerxes was his Greek name. So in the book of Esther we get a glimpse of what was taking place back in Babylon to the Jews who were still living as exiles in a foreign land. While it is obvious from reading the book of Nehemiah that God had been with the Jews who returned to the Promised Land, He had not forgotten or forsaken those who remained. And while God is not mentioned anywhere in the book of Esther, His presence can be felt throughout the book. It is the story of a young Jewish girl who found herself surprisingly and suddenly thrust into a very unexpected role. She went from the obscurity of life as a poor peasant girl to the throne room of the king of Persia. Through a series of seemingly random events, she became the next queen. Her rapid and unexpected rise to prominence reminds me of the story of Joseph. Like Joseph, Esther would experience some very unwanted trouble early in life. She lost both her parents at a young age and ended up being raised by her cousin, Mordecai. She later found herself included in a special "beauty pageant" that had been designed to find the next queen of Persia. Again, like Joseph, Esther found favor with the man who was placed in charge of caring for these young women. Out of all the girls brought in to compete for the king's favor, Esther stood out. We read that, “he [Hegai] advanced her and her young women to the best place in the harem” (Esther 2:9 ESV). Later we read that “Esther was winning favor in the eyes of all who saw her” (Esther 2:15 ESV). And finally, we're told, “the king loved Esther more than all the women, and she won grace and favor in his sight more than all the virgins, so that he set the royal crown on her head and made her queen instead of Vashti” (Esther 2:17 ESV).   

What does this passage reveal about God?

While the name of God is not mentioned in the book of Esther, He is inferred all throughout the story. The original audience for this book would have been the people of God living long after the events recorded in the book had taken place. It was intended as a reminder of God's sovereignty and providence. The Jewish readers of this book would have clearly seen the hand of God in the circumstances recorded on its pages. They would have recognized that Esther's rapid rise to fame was totally the work of God. He had been behind the scenes, orchestrating every single circumstance – from Queen Vashti's refusal to obey the king and Esther's unparalleled beauty to the favor she found all along the way. You also see God's sovereign hand in the seeming good luck of Mordecai to be in the right place at just the right time so he could help foil a plot on the king's life. Every single aspect of this story speaks of God's involvement in the lives of men and the history of mankind.   

What does this passage reveal about man?

But the story of Esther is also the story of human responsibility. While God could prepare the path and order the events surrounding this young woman, the day came when she had to step out in faith and do her part. She was going to have to recognize that God had placed her right where she was for a reason. She had a part to play in God's divine plan for the people of Israel. The writer of Hebrews tells us, “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God” (Hebrews 13:16 ESV). He even asked for prayer from his readers, saying, “for we are sure that we have a clear conscience, desiring to act honorably in all things” (Hebrews 13:18 ESV). Esther was going to have to do good and share what she had – her influence over the king. She was going to have to take full advantage of the role in which God had placed her and act honorably in all things. The temptation would have been to protect herself by playing it safe. She would find it easy to justify self-preservation and ignore the difficulties of those around her. But the story of Esther is the story of human responsibility in light of God's overwhelming sovereignty. This young girl had been crowned queen for a reason. And the ramifications of her seeming good luck went far beyond her solitary life. God had placed her in that unique spot for a very specific reason. But would she obey? And what would have happened had she not obeyed? 

How would I apply what I’ve read to my own life?

The story of Esther is also the story of the ongoing reality of both human and spiritual opposition. While God is not mentioned in the story, neither is Satan, but his handiwork will be evident throughout. There is far more going on in this story than the life of a single young Jewish girl who finds herself the recipient of some remarkable good karma. What we have here is a vivid glimpse into the spiritual warfare that Paul so aptly describes: “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12 ESV). There is an epic battle recorded in this little book that pits the ruler of this world against the God of the universe. And what we learn is that “he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4 ESV). Every day, God is raising up an Esther. He is putting in place a particular person to accomplish His divine plan by living in submission to His revealed will. Which is why the writer of Hebrews says, “Now may the God of peace—who brought up from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great Shepherd of the sheep, and ratified an eternal covenant with his blood— may he equip you with all you need for doing his will. May he produce in you, through the power of Jesus Christ, every good thing that is pleasing to him. All glory to him forever and ever! Amen” (Hebrews 13:20-21 ESV). God places us right where He wants us. Then He equips us with all that we need to do what He has called us to do. We may find the role intimidating and overwhelming. We may feel that we are not up to the task. But we must always remember that God doesn't place us without empowering us. Esther would find the inner resolve to do what God had called her to do. She would find the strength to face her fears, stand up to the enemy and watch God use her life for the good of man and His own glory.

Father, there is no such thing as luck for us as believers. You are at work in and around our lives each and every day. You are orchestrating events and placing us in situations and circumstances so that You might reveal Your power in us and through us. May we truly approach life with the mindset of Esther. Help us to see You at work and recognize Your sovereign will placing us where we need to be and equipping us with what we need to succeed. Amen

Remain Faithful.

Nehemiah 13, Hebrews 12

As you endure this divine discipline, remember that God is treating you as his own children. Who ever heard of a child who is never disciplined by its father? For our earthly fathers disciplined us for a few years, doing the best they knew how. But God’s discipline is always good for us, so that we might share in his holiness. Hebrews 12:7, 10 NLT

Nehemiah had served as governor of Judah for 12 years; then, as he had promised the king, he had returned to Susa. He would remain in Babylon for a period of 3 years before returning to Judah again. And when he arrived he found things had deteriorated once again. The people had violated the covenant they had made with God. They still had not separated themselves from the Ammonites and Moabites. They had continued to marry outsiders and make alliances with their enemies. Eliashib, the high priest, had allowed Tobiah the Ammonite to marry into his family. Not only that, he had provided Tobiah, a proven enemy of Judah, with his own private quarters inside the temple itself. This was in direct violation of God's word found in Deuteronomy 23:3-4. The high priest had put friendship with the world ahead of obedience to God and had desecrated the temple in the meantime. But there was more. The people had not paid the temple tax or provided for the Levites, leading Nehemiah to accuse them of forsaking the house of God. They were violating the Sabbath by buying and selling goods on the holy day. Things seemed to be about as bad as they had ever been. But Nehemiah took action. Rather than walk away in disgust and return to his life in Babylon, he once again took it upon himself to make a difference.

What does this passage reveal about God?

God was going to use Nehemiah yet again to bring repentance and revival among His people. God is always looking for a man that He can use to speak His truth and call His people to repentance. Over in the book of Ezekiel we find these sobering words: “I looked for someone who might rebuild the wall of righteousness that guards the land. I searched for someone to stand in the gap in the wall so I wouldn’t have to destroy the land, but I found no one” (Ezekiel 22:30 NLT). God isn't looking for extraordinary men. He isn't looking for perfect men. He is simply looking for obedient men like Nehemiah. Men who are willing to rebuild the wall of righteousness that guards the land. And God's search is not relegated to men. He is looking for men and women who, in spite of their flaws, will remain faithful to Him and stand in the gap on behalf of His people.  

What does this passage reveal about man?

We live in a day much like that of Nehemiah's. The spiritual walls are in need of repair. The people of God are in a weakened, vulnerable state. God is looking for men and women who will be difference-makers. The apostle Paul warned Timothy of days like this: “You should know this, Timothy, that in the last days there will be very difficult times. For people will love only themselves and their money. They will be boastful and proud, scoffing at God, disobedient to their parents, and ungrateful. They will consider nothing sacred. They will be unloving and unforgiving; they will slander others and have no self-control. They will be cruel and hate what is good. They will betray their friends, be reckless, be puffed up with pride, and love pleasure rather than God. They will act religious, but they will reject the power that could make them godly. Stay away from people like that!” (2 Timothy 3:1-5 NLT). In the book of Isaiah, we read about God's assessment of the people of Israel and it is NOT a pretty picture. “Shout with the voice of a trumpet blast. Shout aloud! Don’t be timid. Tell my people Israel of their sins! Yet they act so pious! They come to the Temple every day and seem delighted to learn all about me. They act like a righteous nation that would never abandon the laws of its God. They ask me to take action on their behalf, pretending they want to be near me” (Isaiah 58:1-2 NLT). There comes a time when someone has to step up and speak out, so God raises up a Nehemiah. to say the difficult things that need to be said and do the hard things that no one else wants to do. 

How would I apply what I’ve read to my own life?

God loves His people. But He will not allow them to live in ongoing sin and open rebellion to His Word. He will bring discipline. But He will also at time bring an individual along who will act as His instrument to bring healing to His people. Over in Isaiah 58 we read these encouraging words: “Some of you will rebuild the deserted ruins of your cities. Then you will be known as a rebuilder of walls and a restorer of homes” (Isaiah 58:12 NLT). As bad as things may get, there is always hope that God will bring about His loving discipline and correction. There is also the assurance that He will use men and women like us to bring it about. The writer of Hebrews encourages us to “lay aside every, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:1 ESV). We have work to do. It may be that God wants to use us to bring about healing and restoration to His people. The question is whether or not we will be ready and willing when that time comes. So the writer of Hebrews challenges us, “So take a new grip with your tired hands and strengthen your weak knees. Mark out a straight path for your feet so that those who are weak and lame will not fall but become strong” (Hebrews 12:12 NLT).

Father, help me remain faithful and ready so that I can be used by You when the time comes. And help me recognize the need when necessary and be ready to step into it boldly and confidently, knowing that You will be with me. I want to be a rebuilder of walls and a restorer of homes. Let me be the Nehemiah of my day. Amen

By Faith…

Nehemiah 11-12, Hebrews 11

And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect. Hebrews 11:39-40 ESV

It took a lot of faith for Nehemiah to leave his safe and secure job as a civil servant working for the king of Persia. It took faith for him to go before the king and risk his anger by asking for permission to return to his native land and rebuild the walls. It took faith for him to ask the Jews living in exile to make the long journey back to Judah and take on the formidable task of doing construction work on walls that had been destroyed 70 years earlier. It took faith for him to face the unceasing attacks of his enemies and continue to build in the face of opposition and the mounting discouragement of the people. It took faith for him to call the people to renew their covenant with God and give up their foreign wives and the children they had born. All Nehemiah had to go on was the word of God. He couldn't see the outcome of his efforts. He had no guarantee as to how things were going to turn out. And there is no doubt that Nehemiah had second thoughts along the way. He got discouraged. He had misgivings. He questioned himself and his calling. But he kept trusting and building. The writer of Hebrews provides us with a wonderful definition of faith: “Faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us assurance about things we cannot see” (Hebrews 11:1 NLT). The apostle Paul gives us similar sentiment: “…for we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7 ESV). In this life, we can't always see the outcome. We aren't always given a crystal clear image of how things are going to turn out. We simply receive a word from God and are expected to trust Him – sight unseen. That is the essence of faith. Like Nehemiah, we must learn to trust God, not the circumstances. While everything around us may point to a less-than-satisfactory conclusion, we must keep our eyes focused on God and His unwavering character. We must trust in His power and His uncanny ability to always keep His promises.

What does this passage reveal about God?

Chapter 11 of Hebrews is often called the Hall of Faith. It contains a list of Old Testament characters whose lives, like Nehemiah's, demonstrated what it means to live by faith. We read of Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, and the rest of the patriarchs. There's the familiar story of Moses. And yet, the central character of the chapter is God. At the end of the day, it is He in whom they are placing their trust and basing their faith. Abraham left his hometown on nothing more than the word of God. He traveled a long distance to get to a land that God had said He would give him, then spent his entire life living in tents and never really occupying the land that had been promised. He waited years to have a son through whom God said He would make a great nation. But then God asked Abraham to sacrifice him. And we read that, “ It was by faith that Abraham offered Isaac as a sacrifice when God was testing him. Abraham, who had received God’s promises, was ready to sacrifice his only son, Isaac” (Hebrews 11:17 NLT). Abraham had to trust God. He couldn't let reason take over. Nothing about what God was asking him to do made sense. But “Abraham reasoned that if Isaac died, God was able to bring him back to life again” (Hebrews 11:19 NLT). His faith was in God. Abraham would not live long enough to see the promises of God fulfilled. He would never have a permanent home or see his descendants proliferate and spread throughout the land of Canaan. But he kept trusting. Over and over again we read those two powerful words, “by faith.” Each of these Old Testament saints lived by faith in God. Even Rahab the prostitute and a non-Jew, placed her faith in the God of Abraham, choosing to trust that He was able to defeat the gods of her own people. She took a huge risk and protected the Hebrew spies, asking them to spare her life when they conquered the city. With no guarantee of success, she trusted God. And time and time again, we see that God proved Himself trustworthy. 

What does this passage reveal about man?

We are wired to live by sight. We demand proof. We want guarantees. But the life of the believer is based on faith. It “is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us assurance about things we cannot see” (Hebrews 11:1 NLT). So the daily test for each of us is whether we will trust God and place our faith in Him. Will we do what He tells us to do or go with our gut? Had Nehemiah listened to his own inner voice, he would never have returned to Judah, never have attempted to rebuild the wall, and never experienced the joy and elation of celebrating its dedication a mere 59 days after having started. But even Nehemiah didn't get to see all his hopes fulfilled. The city would remain in a state of disrepair and virtually empty for years to come. He would leave and return to find so many of his reforms and renovations having fallen by the wayside. And yet he would keep on believing and building. One of the main roadblocks to our faith is our tendency to be shortsighted in our perspective. We have a short-term mindset that tempts us to expect everything in the here-and-now. We expect immediate results. But the writer of Hebrews reminds us that those great saints of the Old Testament “all died in faith, not having received the things promised” (Hebrews 11:13 ESV). They somehow knew that there was more than meets the eye. They had an eternal perspective, “having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth” (Hebrews 11:13 ESV). Somehow they understood that God had something far greater prepared for them than just the immediate gratification of their hopes and dreams. “But they were looking for a better place, a heavenly homeland. That is why God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them” (Hebrews 11:17 NLT).  

How would I apply what I’ve read to my own life?

Living by faith does not mean that everything always turns out for the better. It is not a guarantee of the easy life. In fact, chapter 11 of Hebrews tells us of those who “were tortured, refusing to turn from God in order to be set free. They placed their hope in a better life after the resurrection. Some were jeered at, and their backs were cut open with whips. Others were chained in prisons. Some died by stoning, some were sawed in half, and others were killed with the sword. Some went about wearing skins of sheep and goats, destitute and oppressed and mistreated. They were too good for this world, wandering over deserts and mountains, hiding in caves and holes in the ground” (Hebrews 11:35-38 NLT). The apostles themselves fit into this category. Most of them died martyr's deaths. They didn't live to see the return of Christ. But they never stopped believing that His promises were true and that God would accomplish all that He had said. They had an assurance about things they could not see – based on their understanding of the character of God. To live by faith is to live with an eternal, not a temporal perspective. It is to understand that what will be is not limited by what I can see. God's plan is not hindered by my eyesight. The best is yet to come. God is not done yet. I must learn to place my confidence in my unseen, yet unfailing God.

Father, You are trustworthy. You are faithful. You are all powerful and completely in control of all things. I can place my faith in You. Forgive me for the many times I attempt to live by sight. I still find it so easy to focus on my circumstances and judge Your goodness based on what I can see. But we are to live by believing, not be seeing. I won't always understand what is going on. I want always like what I am going through. But I can trust You. I must always remember that Your best is out ahead of me – “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you” (1 Peter 1:4 ESV). Amen

Our Gracious and Merciful God.

Nehemiah 9-10, Hebrews 10

Nevertheless, in your great mercies you did not make an end of them or forsake them, for you are a gracious and merciful God. Nehemiah 9:31 ESV

Chapter nine of Nehemiah contains one of the most profound prayers found in the entire Bible. It spans almost the entire chapter and it contains a tremendous understanding of the character of God and the sinfulness of mankind. In this prayer, we have an overview of the relationship between God and His people since the day He chose Abram. It provides a glimpse into the character of God and the nature of man. It juxtaposes God's holiness and man's sinfulness. It contrasts God's mercy and grace and man's unfaithfulness and rebellion. For generations, God had shown His undeserved faithfulness to His people. He had rescued, led, fed, guided, provided, spoken, and even appeared to them. And yet they had repeatedly rejected, disobeyed, and forsaken Him. But this prayer expresses a remarkable awareness of just who God really is. “But you are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and did not forsake them” (Nehemiah 9:17b ESV). Even after their ancestors had made the golden calf and attributed to it the glory due to God alone, God had remained faithful – “…you in your great mercies did not forsake them in the wilderness” (Nehemiah 9:19 ESV). God continued to keep His covenant promise made to Abraham. “You multiplied their children as the stars of heaven” (Nehemiah 9:23 ESV). “And they captured fortified cities and rich land, and took possession of houses full of all good things, cisterns already hewn, vineyards, olive orchards, and fruit trees in abundance” (Nehemiah 9:25 ESV). God had given them the land – not because they deserved it, but because He had promised it. And yet, they continued to live in unfaithfulness and disobedience. Their history is one in which the cycles of sin, rebellion, God's punishment and ultimate deliverance can be seen over and over again. Through it all, God had remained faithful. “Nevertheless, in your great mercies you did not make an end of them or forsake them, for you are a gracious and merciful God” (Nehemiah 9:31 ESV).

What does this passage reveal about God?

This prayer reflects an understanding that God was righteous and just, merciful and gracious. It contains a clear admission of guilt and a remarkable awareness of God's holiness and righteousness in His dealings with the people of Israel. “Yet you have been righteous in all that has come upon us, for you have dealt faithfully and we have acted wickedly” (Nehemiah 9:33 ESV). The people of Nehemiah's day knew full well that their current situation was due to their own sins and the sins of their ancestors. They were living back in the land, and while they had completed the restoration of the Temple and the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem, they were still surrounded by enemies. They were still weak and powerless, without a king or a standing army. They were also guilty of having disobeyed God's laws and neglected His commands to keep the Sabbath and His yearly festivals. God was entirely free from any wrong doing in His dealings with the people of Israel and Judah. Any pain and suffering they may have experienced, while brought upon them by God, was due to their own sin. God was simply keeping His word and visiting upon them the curses He had promised should they disobey His commands. The most incredible aspect of this prayer is its portrait of God's faithfulness, holiness, righteousness and love. He is rightfully referred to as “our God, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who keeps covenant and steadfast love” (Nehemiah 9:32 ESV).

What does this passage reveal about man?

God had been loving, faithful, gracious, and merciful – over and over again. And yet, the people had proven themselves incapable of remaining faithful to Him. Their sin and rebellion in the face of God's mercy and grace should not surprise or shock us, because it is the story of our own lives. Even those of us who have received the incredible gift of God's grace made available through the death of His own Son, find ourselves wrestling with the daily task of trying to stay faithful and true. We battle with the desire to rebel and do things our own way. We forget His mercies and neglect His calls to obedience and faithfulness. And in some ways, our guilt is even greater than that of the Israelites, because what we have received from God is even greater than what they had experienced. We have been offered complete forgiveness of sins – once for all. No more need for repetitive, ongoing sacrifices. We aren't obligated to try and keep the law in order to remain in a right standing with God. The writer of Hebrews reminds us, “The old system under the law of Moses was only a shadow, a dim preview of the good things to come, not the good things themselves. The sacrifices under that system were repeated again and again, year after year, but they were never able to provide perfect cleansing for those who came to worship” (Hebrews 10:1 NLT). There was a certain sense of hopelessness attached to the sacrificial system. It was always intended to be impartial and incomplete. “But instead, those sacrifices actually reminded them of their sins year after year. For it is not possible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. That is why, when Christ came into the world” (Hebrews 10:3-5 NLT). Jesus Christ is the ultimate and final expression of God's marvelous grace. He came to do the will of His Father and to accomplish what the sacrificial system could only allude to, but never truly provide. “For God’s will was for us to be made holy by the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ, once for all time” (Hebrews 10:10 NLT). While the priests had to offer repeatedly the same sacrifices for sin, Jesus offered “for all time a single sacrifice for sins” (Hebrews 10:11 ESV). 

How would I apply what I’ve read to my own life?

As a result of Jesus Christ has done, there is no longer any offering required for our sins. God has promised to remember our sins and our lawless deeds no more. He has provided us with complete forgiveness for our sins – past, present and future. We stand before Him as righteous because He views us through the blood of His Son. As a result, we can “go right into the presence of God with sincere hearts fully trusting him. For our guilty consciences have been sprinkled with Christ’s blood to make us clean, and our bodies have been washed with pure water” (Hebrews 10:22 NLT). That incredible reality should dramatically change the way we live. It should motivate us to live differently and distinctively, with an understanding that our behavior does not earn us favor with God, but simply reflects our love and appreciation for all He has done for us. “So do not throw away this confident trust in the Lord. Remember the great reward it brings you! Patient endurance is what you need now, so that you will continue to do God’s will. Then you will receive all that he has promised” (Hebrews 10:35-36 NLT). Our final reward is yet to come. This life is not all there is. God has promised us something far greater than what we can experience in this world. We are to keep our sights set on the hope to come. Eternity is our destiny. Heaven is our home. “Let us hold tightly without wavering to the hope we affirm, for God can be trusted to keep his promise. Let us think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works. And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near” (Hebrews 10:23-25 NLT).

Father, You are so incredibly faithful, loving, kind, merciful and gracious. You have done for me what I could have never done for myself. You have provided complete forgiveness for my sins and have promised me an eternity in Your presence, free from guilt or any form of condemnation. Help me to realize the magnitude of what I have received. Give me the strength to live with my eyes focused on the promise yet to come, instead of living in the fear of the present. I want to hold tightly without waving to the hope we affirm. May my actions be always based on Your character and faithfulness. Amen

God's Provision.

Nehemiah 7-8, Hebrews 9

And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength. Nehemiah 8:16 ESV

The walls of Jerusalem had been rebuilt – in just 52 days. The temple had already been restored under the leadership of Ezra. But the city was a virtual ghost town. The majority of the people who had returned to the land were living in the towns outside the walls of the city. But Nehemiah knew that his work was incomplete. While he had done what he had set out to do, the rebuilding of the walls, he chose not to return to Susa. He stayed because he knew that rebuilt walls did not make a city. It had to be repopulated. And the people who would repopulate that city would have to be made right with God. So he assembled the congregation of Judah and arranged for Ezra to read from the book of the law. This could have been the entire Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, or it could have been just the book of Deuteronomy along with portions of Leviticus. But whatever it was that Ezra read, it took hours for him to do so, and the people stood the entire time. The law was read and it was explained in detail so that the people could understand it. And the result was that the people were convicted of their sins. They wept and mourned as they heard how they had violated the commands of God. But Nehemiah told them, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep” (Nehemiah 8:9 ESV). He encouraged them focus their attention on God. While the law had reminded them of their sin, he wanted them to remember their gracious, merciful God. It was time to celebrate because God was their strength. He had provided a means for them to receive forgiveness for their sins. All of this would have taken place in the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar. Part of what was read to them out of the law was the command to keep the festivals of God. They were to celebrate the Feast of Trumpets, the Feast of Booths and the Day of Atonement. These festivals were designed to remind them of all that God had done for them in the past. And they were to culminate with the once-a-year sacrifice made on their behalf by the high priest, when he entered into the Holy of Holies and made atonement for the unintentional sins they had committed that year. This was to be a celebration. While they stood guilty before God, He had provided a means of receiving forgiveness and pardon.

What does this passage reveal about God?

When God had given the people of Israel His plans for the tabernacle and His commands for observing the sacrificial system, it was all a foreshadowing of things to come. It was an earthly picture of a heavenly reality. It was designed to be temporary and incomplete. The author of Hebrews says, “They serve as a copy and shadow of heavenly things” (Hebrews 8:5 ESV). The law, associated with the Old Covenant, was not intended to be lasting. It was not a permanent fix to man's persistent sin problem. “For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second” (Hebrews 8:7 ESV). God had told the people of Israel, “Behold, days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah” (Hebrews 8:8 ESV). He had a plan for a new and improved covenant that would be permanent and complete. Everything that the people of Israel had done in association with the tabernacle and later, with the temple, had been intended to point toward something greater to come. One of the key elements involved in man's atonement under the law was the shedding of blood. “Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sin” (Hebrews 9:22 ESV). Every year, on the Day of Atonement, the high priest had to offer a sacrifice for his own sins before he could intercede for the people. Why? Because he was a sinner just like to whom he ministered. Then he had to offer a sacrifice and take the blood, mixed with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, and sprinkle it on the book of the law and the people, declaring, “This is the blood of the covenant that God commanded for you” (Hebrews 9:20 ESV). At that moment, the covenant between God and His people was ratified and renewed. But again, it was just a foreshadowing of things to come. Because that event had to take place every single year, because their atonement was only temporary. It was incomplete. In the next chapter, we will read, “For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4 ESV). Complete, permanent forgiveness of sins through the sacrifice of bulls and goats could never happen. But God had a better solution.

What does this passage reveal about man?

Our sin is an ever-present reality. It follows us wherever we go. It is a permanent part of our experience as we live on this planet. When we read God's Word, we are reminded of our sin. It convicts us of sin and reveals to us our unfaithfulness and consistent rebellion against a faithful, loving God. But rather than weep and mourn over our sin, we must learn to rejoice in our Savior. God has provided a solution to our sin problem. And this solution is far better than the one the Israelites had. “For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf” (Hebrews 9:24 ESV). Christ didn't enter into an earthly tabernacle or temple. As our high priest, He took His sacrifice right into the presence of God the Father. And the sacrifice he made was once and for all. “But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Hebrew 9:26 ESV). He gave His life as a sacrifice for our sins and, unlike the animal sacrifices under the Old Covenant, His sacrifice was a permanent solution to man's sin problem. His death provided complete atonement for man's sins – past, present and future. He has secured an “eternal redemption” (Hebrews 9:12 ESV).

How would I apply what I’ve read to my own life?

So what should our reaction be to this news? We should rejoice and celebrate. We should recognize that the joy of the Lord is our strength. He has provided for our salvation. He has made a way for us to be restored to a right relationship with Him that is not based on human effort. God has done for us what we could never have done for ourselves. “God showed how much he loved us by sending his one and only Son into the world so that we might have eternal life through him” (1 John 4:9 NLT). “But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners” (Romans 5:8 NLT). That is cause for celebration. That is reason for rejoicing. Our God is great. His love is unimaginable and His grace is immeasurable. Yes, our sin is real. But so is our salvation. Those of us who have placed our faith and hope in the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross can celebrate because our redemption is eternal, our atonement is complete. And the truly great news is, “so also Christ was offered once for all time as a sacrifice to take away the sins of many people. He will come again, not to deal with our sins, but to bring salvation to all who are eagerly waiting for him” (Hebrews 9:28 NLT). Now that's cause for celebration.

Father, never let me lose sight of the staggering implications of the salvation that You have provided through Your Son. Rather than wallow in my sins, let me rejoice in the fact that my sins are forgiven, my future is secure, and Your Son is some day coming back for me. Thank You for the new covenant made available through the death, burial and resurrection of Your Son. He died, but He rose again. He left, but He is coming again. I have plenty to rejoice about. Amen

Our Great High Priest.

Nehemiah 5-6, Hebrews 8

Here is the main point: We have a High Priest who sat down in the place of honor beside the throne of the majestic God in heaven. There he ministers in the heavenly Tabernacle, the true place of worship that was built by the Lord and not by human hands.  Hebrews 8:1-2 NLT

It is amazing to think that God had restored the people of Judah to the land – in spite of their ongoing disobedience and unfaithfulness. He had delivered them from their captivity in Babylon and miraculous arranged for a pagan king to orchestrate and underwrite the entire venture. And when they arrived back in the land, while they found a city that was still in ruins and the constant presence of their enemies, they also were able to witness the ongoing presence and provision of God. And yet, they continued to be unfaithful. It came to Nehemiah's attention that there were serious inequities and injustices going on among the people of God. Their greatest threat was not from without, but from within. According to the Mosaic Law, the Israelites were to care for their own. In fact, God had told them, “But if there are any poor Israelites in your towns when you arrive in the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tightfisted toward them. Instead, be generous and lend them whatever they need. Do not be mean-spirited and refuse someone a loan because the year for canceling debts is close at hand. If you refuse to make the loan and the needy person cries out to the Lord, you will be considered guilty of sin. Give generously to the poor, not grudgingly, for the Lord your God will bless you in everything you do. There will always be some in the land who are poor. That is why I am commanding you to share freely with the poor and with other Israelites in need” (Deuteronomy 15:7-11 NLT). God had made it clear that the Israelites were to treat the poor with dignity and respect. In fact, while God had made it perfectly okay for one Jew to lend to another, He had arranged that every seven years those debts would be wiped clean. Whatever had not been paid was to be completely voided from the books. If a fellow Jew was forced to sell himself as a slave because of a debt, the one who bought him was to set him free every seventh year. The picture was one of mutual care and concern. But in Nehemiah's day, the people were taking advantage of one another's difficult circumstances. Their were few paying jobs and a famine in the land. So the more well-to-do Jews were buying as slaves the children of those who were in desperate need. They were charging high interest on loans made to those who could barely make ends meet. And Nehemiah became incensed.

What does this passage reveal about God?

God's standards had never changed. While the circumstances were quite different than when He had given Moses the Law, the expectations remained the same. He wanted His people to treat one another with love and mutual respect. He wanted them to care for their own and live with a sense of community and mutual responsibility. God's intention had always been that “there will be no poor among you; for the Lord will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess” (Deuteronomy 15:4 NLT). Even all these years later, God still intended for His people to care and provide for one another. No one should go hungry. No one should go without. God's blessing would be great enough for all to benefit, not just some. The abundance of a few was intended to be shared with the many. God would give so that others might receive. It reminds me of the scene that took place in the early days of the Church recorded in the book of Acts. “And all the believers met together in one place and shared everything they had. They sold their property and possessions and shared the money with those in need” (Acts 2:44-45 NLT). No one lacked anything, because they shared all in common. That was what God had intended to be the case even in the days of Nehemiah.       

What does this passage reveal about man?

It's interesting to note that Nehemiah “brought charges against the nobles and officials” (Nehemiah 5:7 ESV). He accused them of exacting interest. He sarcastically accused them of enslaving and oppressing those whom God had just set from the slavery and oppression of Babylon. Evidently, some of the worst offenders were the leaders of the people of Judah. The most influential were the most guilty. So Nehemiah charged them, “Ought you not to walk in the feat of our God?” (Nehemiah 5:9 ESV). Their actions exhibited a disregard for God's law and a flippancy toward God's justice. They had no fear of God's retribution. And yet Nehemiah was a living example of what God had expected. He feared God. He showed it by his actions. Rather than live off the salary made available to him as governor, he paid his own way. Not only that, he fed and provided for 150 people – out of his own money. And as governor, he didn't sit in his palace overseeing the work of rebuilding the wall. He got his hands dirty. He worked right alongside the people. He had to put up with the daily threats of his enemies. He had to deny their vicious rumors and continue to encourage the people to remain strong and faithful to their God-given task. And his efforts proved successful. The wall was completed in only 52 days.

But while Nehemiah was faithful, there were others who were compromising and caving in to the constant temptations to trust the world rather than God. One of the more glaring examples was Shecaniah, who according to chapter 12 was a member of the priestly order and was possibly a Levite. This man had allowed his daughter to marry Tobiah, an Ammonite and one of the most vocal enemies of Nehemiah. Later on, in chapter 13, we will find out about another priest named Eliashib, who had also married into the family of Tobiah and had even provided this non-Hebrew with his own apartment in the Temple of God. It seems that even the very men who had been set aside by God to act as His mediators had compromised their convictions and sold out to the enemy.

How would I apply what I’ve read to my own life?

But the good news is that God has always had a plan for man's persistent problem of unfaithfulness. He knew that His people would prove to be unfaithful. He knew His priests would prove to be incapable of remaining pure and dedicated to acting on His behalf. Which is why He provided a sacrificial system that would cleanse them from sin so they could effectively stand before God on behalf of the people. But in Hebrews we read about an even better plan God had in mind. It involved His own Son. From before the foundations of the world, God had planned to send His Son as the answer to man's persistent problem of sin and unfaithfulness. In essence, Jesus became our High Priest, our mediator before God, who offered an acceptable sacrifice for our sin. It just so happened that the sacrifice He offered was His own sinless life. The writer of Hebrews described Jesus as “a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, a minister in the holy places, in the true tent that the Lord set up, not man” (Hebrews 8:1-2 ESV). Jesus' offering didn't take place in some man-made Temple, but in the inner recesses of heaven itself. And because His sacrifice was acceptable to God, Jesus now sits on a throne in heaven seated right next to His heavenly Father. He accomplished what no earthly priest could have ever done. He lived a completely faithful, sinless life; then offered that life as a sacrifice for the sins of all mankind. And some day, Jesus is going to accomplish for the people of Israel what they were totally unsuccessful at doing. In spite of their unfaithfulness, God has promised them, “I will put my laws in their minds, and I will write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people” (Hebrews 8:10 NLT). This will be accomplished through the work of Jesus Christ. The great High Priest will restore the people of God to a right relationship with God – once and for all. Unlike the priests in Nehemiah's day, Jesus Christ will accomplish the will of His Father and fulfill the promises of the God of Israel.

Father, Your Son is the faithful, righteous, totally obedient High Priest who has offered the once-for-all sacrifice for my sins. He has done what no man could have ever done. He has satisfied Your holiness and paid the price due for my sins. He offered the sacrifice that was beyond value – His own sinless life on my behalf. And one day He is going to fulfill Your promise to the people of Israel, because You are a faithful God and Your Son is a faithful High Priest. Amen

Our Great Intercessor.

Nehemiah 3-4, Hebrews 7

Therefore he is able, once and forever, to save those who come to God through him. He lives forever to intercede with God on their behalf.  Hebrews 7:25 NLT

God has always provided a way out for His people. While they may have found themselves facing times of difficulty and despair, God was always nearby, ready to intercede on their behalf. As Nehemiah and the people began the task of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, they not only faced a formidable task, they encountered opposition. Any time the people of God attempt to do the work and the will of God, they will find themselves confronted by the enemies of God. As the people worked side by side repairing and restoring the walls, their enemies mocked, jeered and threatened them. The enemies of God will always attempt to undermine the efforts of His people. “What does this bunch of poor, feeble Jews think they’re doing? Do they think they can build the wall in a single day by just offering a few sacrifices? Do they actually think they can make something of stones from a rubbish heap—and charred ones at that?” (Nehemiah 4:2 NLT). God's enemies will always try to feed the doubts and fears lingering in the minds of God's people. Satan has an uncanny knack of getting us to question our own ability to carry out what God has called us to do. ““That stone wall would collapse if even a fox walked along the top of it!” (Nehemiah 8:3 NLT). But the remedy to the taunts and jeers of the enemy is prayer. We must always turn to the One who can provide a way out. Which is exactly what Nehemiah did.

What does this passage reveal about God?

Nehemiah took their need to the very One who could do something about it. He turned to God. He begged God to intervene and hold their enemies responsible for their constant threats and their unceasing efforts to undermine the work of God. Nehemiah knew that those who stood against him and the work on the wall were really standing against God. As long as the people of God were doing the work of God, they could count on His protection and provision. Nehemiah was able to encourage the people to trust in God, despite what they might hear or see. “Don’t be afraid of the enemy! Remember the Lord, who is great and glorious, and fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your homes!” (Nehemiah 4:14 NLT). But isn't it interesting that while Nehemiah reminds the people to remember God, he also tells them to be prepared to fight. God would do His part, but they must also be ready to do theirs. We see in this passage a timeless principle that mixes prayer with preparation. Right after Nehemiah's prayer recorded in chapter four, we read, “So we built the wall” (Nehemiah 4:6 ESV). Nehemiah knew that they had a job to do – a job given to them directly from God. He also knew that they must be prepared and vigilant. While the battle was ultimately the Lord's, that did not mean there would be no role for them to play. So they prayed AND took practical steps to prepare to defend their families, their nation and their work. “But we prayed to our God and guarded the city day and night to protect ourselves” (Nehemiah 4:9 NLT).      

What does this passage reveal about man?

God has work for His people to do. Just as He had called the people of Israel and set them apart to be a holy nation, He has called believers to live lives that are distinctly different and wholly dedicated to His Kingdom. We exist for His glory, not our own. We are here to serve as His ambassadors, acting as salt and light in the world, and conduits of His grace to a lost and dying generation. And as we do His will, we will face opposition. His enemies will become our enemies. They will taunt, threaten, and even attack us. And when they do, we must turn to the One who always stands ready to provide protection and provision. We have a great High Priest in Jesus Christ, who sits at the right hand of the Father, and the writer of Hebrews tells us, “He lives forever to intercede with God” on our behalf (Hebrews 7:25 ESV). In Jesus, we have found an advocate and representative who ministers on our behalf. He stands ready to aid and assist us every step along the way as we attempt to faithfully do God's will in the face of ongoing opposition. The people of Judah should have been very grateful that they had someone like Nehemiah to stand in the gap for them and take their problems to God. But as believers in Jesus Christ, we don't have to rely on a fallible man, we have Jesus Christ, “who has been made perfect forever” (Hebrews 7:28 ESV). “He is the kind of high priest we need because he is holy and blameless, unstained by sin. He has been set apart from sinners and has been given the highest place of honor in heaven” (Hebrews 7:26 NLT). And we can turn to Him at any time to help us with any need we may have.

How would I apply what I’ve read to my own life?

This life can at times be difficult. As the people of God we will always be surrounded by the enemies of God. When we attempt to do God's will and accomplish the work He has given us, we can count on facing opposition. We will even encounter our own sin natures along the way. We are told that we will face the world, the flesh and the enemy. All three will do their best to undermine our efforts and cause us to doubt and despair. But we must remember that we have an advocate with the Father. We have an intercessor who stands ready to step in and provide us with all we need to fight the good fight to the finish. As we do God's will, we must never forget that we have God's Son on our side. He has already won the battle. He has already conquered sin and death through His selfless sacrifice on the cross. His resurrection turned defeat into victory and should turn our despair into hope. I am reminded of the words of Paul recorded in Romans 8:31-39:

What shall we say about such wonderful things as these? If God is for us, who can ever be against us? Since he did not spare even his own Son but gave him up for us all, won’t he also give us everything else? Who dares accuse us whom God has chosen for his own? No one—for God himself has given us right standing with himself. Who then will condemn us? No one—for Christ Jesus died for us and was raised to life for us, and he is sitting in the place of honor at God’s right hand, pleading for us. Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death? (As the Scriptures say, “For your sake we are killed every day; we are being slaughtered like sheep.”)  No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us. And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Father, You never told us that this life would be easy or without struggle. But You did tell us that You would be here for us. You even sent Your Son to provide us with a way to have constant, unhindered access into Your presence. Now He sits at Your right hand, interceding on our behalf. We can face the condemnation and threats of the enemy because of what He has done. We can live victoriously in this life because He is with us. At the end of the day, we can rest in the knowledge that we are loved by You. And nothing can ever separate us from that love. Amen

Standing On the Promises.

Nehemiah 1-2, Hebrews 6

Remember the word that you commanded your servant Moses, saying, “If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the peoples, but if you return to me and keep my commandments and do them, though your outcasts are in the uttermost parts of heaven, from there I will gather them and bring them to the place that I have chosen, to make my name dwell there.”  Nehemiah 1:8-9 ESV

Nehemiah was living in captivity in Susa, the winter capital of Artaxerses, the king of Persia. He was part of a group of Hebrews who were living in exile as a result of their sins against God. Nehemiah was an employee of the king, serving as his cup-bearer. He was well-acclimated to conditions in Persia, but still had a heart for his native Judah, When he received news of just how bad things were back home, he was devastated. The images of the broken down walls of Jerusalem and the burned gates were too much for him to bear. He recognized that his home town, the city of God, remained in a state of disrepair and the remnant who had returned under the direction of Ezra had failed in their efforts to rebuild. As a result, they remained easy prey for their enemies. But rather than allow this bad news to demoralize him, Nehemiah took action, and he began with prayer. He took the need before God. He confessed their sin, recognizing that the entire situation, including their exile and the broken down walls of Jerusalem, were the result of disobedience and God's punishment. They had gotten what they deserved. But he appealed to God's love and covenant faithfulness. He reminded God that He had promised to restore them to the land if they would return to Him and keep His commandments. Nehemiah puts his hope in the character of God. He knew that God was a promise-keeping god who never goes back on His word.

What does this passage reveal about God?

Nehemiah was very familiar with God. He refers to Him as the “God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments” (Nehemiah 1:5 ESV). He knew that God heard the prayers of His people. In fact, he counted on it. He knew that God kept His promises, regardless of how things might look at the present time. He knew that God was powerful and had a track record of rescuing His people from their self-inflicted problems. He knew that any hope they had would be found in God alone. So he prayed.

The writer of Hebrews also knew a great deal about God. He recognized that, when God made His promise to Abraham, saying, “Surely I will bless you and multiply you” (Hebrews 6:14 ESV), God had guaranteed that promise by swearing on Himself. In other words, God bound His word to His own character. The promise being referred to in this passage is the one God had made regarding Isaac. He had promised to bless Abraham through Isaac and make of him a great nation. But God had also asked Abraham to sacrifice this same son on an altar. And Abraham had been willing to obey because he trusted in the promise of God. He believed that God could still fulfill His promise even if Isaac had been killed. God could have restored Isaac to life. God's promise was greater than Abraham's predicament. Nehemiah believed the same thing. As bad as things appeared back in Jerusalem, God was greater. The problem was formidable, but God's promises were more reliable and dependable.      

What does this passage reveal about man?

The context in chapter six of Hebrews is the danger of believers “falling away” from the faith. The reality of the day was that there was real pressure on Jewish converts to Christianity. They were under constant pressure to reject their faith in Christ. These were real believers facing real persecution. And the possibility of them giving in to that pressure and persecution was just as real. There had already been those who had denied Christ or had turned to a compromised version of the truth. They were not in danger of losing their salvation, but of becoming incapable of repentance and restoration. The writer is addressing those who find themselves hardened by sin and living unrepentant lives. “Take care, brothers lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God” (Hebrews 3:12 ESV). He reminds his readers that they, like Abraham, must stand on the promises of God. God has promised them eternal life. He has promised to keep them and protect them through this lifetime, and fulfill His promise to give them a place in His eternal home. So the writer of Hebrews uses God's promise to their own ancestors as a reminder to keep trusting, even when things are hard. “So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath, so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us” (Hebrews 6:17-18 ESV). The two unchangeable things are God’s promise and His oath. God has promised us future blessings. And He has sworn to keep that promise based on His own character. Rather than fall away, we need to stand on His promises. Rather than cave in to the pressures of this world, we need to stand firm on what we know of God and His unchanging character.

How would I apply what I’ve read to my own life?

“We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever after the order or Melchizedek” (Hebrews 6:19-20 ESV). When Jesus Christ ascended into heaven, He went where we could not go. But He did so as an assurance that He will one day return to take us to be with Him. His presence with the Father is a reminder that the promises of God are true and reliable. Just before His death, Jesus told His disciples, ““Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14:1-3 ESV). Where I am you may be also. That's a promise. We can stand on it. We must place our hope and trust in it. In this life, we will face trials, troubles and tribulations of all kinds. But we must stand on the promises of God. We must stand firm on the character of God. Jesus Himself told us, “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33 ESV).

Father, Your promises are totally reliable because they are based on Your character. You are a holy and wholly trustworthy God. You do not like You never go back on Your Word. You never fail to keep Your promises. Help me to focus on that fact. Don't let me be overcome by the pressures of this world, but let me focus on the promises found in Your Word. Amen

The Power of Intercession.

Ezra 9-10, Hebrews 5

O my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift my face to you, my God, for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has mounted up to the heavens.  Ezra 9:6 NLT

We live in the age of the individual. Even as believers, we tend to view our lives independently from those who are our brothers and sisters in Christ. We focus on our own personal walk with Christ. We worry about our relationship with God and how well we are living the Christian life as individuals. But throughout the Scriptures, the emphasis is always on the corporate body of believers. God sees us as His people and views us collectively. God does care for each of us as individuals and loves us for who we are, but He also sees us as part of His family, as members of the body of Christ. We must always understand that our sin, while committed as individuals, always impacts the entire body. Individual sin has corporate consequences. Like a cancer, it can spread throughout the body, infecting and influencing others, and causing a sense of corporate culpability. Ezra understand this truth. When it came to his attention that there were many living in the land of Judah who had violated God's commands and had intermarried with the various people groups surrounding them, he realized that God viewed their guilt from a corporate perspective. Ezra had not sinned, but he immediately went into mourning. He fell upon his knees and spread out his hands to God. While innocent of any wrong-doing, he included himself in the sins of the people. “O my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift my face to you, my God, for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads” (Ezra 9:6 ESV). He refers to “our iniquities” and “our guilt.” Ezra alone goes before God and confesses the corporate sin and guilt of the people of God. “Behold, we are before you in our guilt, for none can stand before you because of this” (Ezra 9:15 ESV).

What does this passage reveal about God?

Ezra makes it clear that God is totally just in all His actions toward the people of Judah. If God chooses to punish them for their sin, He will be justified and right. He is holy, just, and righteous. They are guilty as charged and deserving of any punishment He should choose to mete out. But Ezra also knows that God is merciful, gracious and a God who shows favor when none is deserved. The very fact that they were back in the land at all was the result of God's mercy and grace. “But now for a brief moment favor has been shown by the Lord our God, to leave us a remnant and to give us a secure hold within his holy place, that our God may brighten our eyes and grant us a little reviving in our slavery” (Ezra 9:8 ESV). God had returned them to the land, not because they deserved it, but because He chose to shower them with His undeserved favor. And yet, they had responded with continued disobedience to His revealed will. Ezra knows what they deserve. But he appeals to God's love and mercy. He asks God to forgive them yet again.       

What does this passage reveal about man?

The truly amazing thing about this passage is the impact that one man could have on the entire nation of Judah. Just as the sin of one infects the whole, the prayers of one can have a cleansing influence over the entire group. Rather than sit back and smugly gloat over his own sinlessness, Ezra chose to include himself in the sins of the people. He knew that God viewed them as a whole. Their corporate sinfulness would bring corporate punishment. They were to have remained pure as a nation. They were His people collectively, not just individually. Ezra knew this well, and so he did what no one else seemed willing to do – he went to the Lord in prayer and interceded on behalf of the nation. He mourned, fasted, confessed and called out to God. And his actions not only got God's attention, but that of the people as well. “While Ezra prayed and made confession, weeping and casting himself down before the house of God, a very great assembly of men, women, and children, gathered to him out of Israel, for the people wept bitterly” (Ezra 10:1 ESV). One man had a powerful influence over the nation. His willingness to intercede on their behalf led to corporate confession. Ezra’s actions led others to step up and speak out. Shecaniah, convicted by Ezra's prayers, came up with the plan to put away all the foreign wives they had married. In other words, he knew that confession was going to have to be accompanied by a course correction in terms of their behavior. They were going to have to do something about their sin and repent of it. And that change was going to come at a high cost. They were going to have to remove the negative influence from their lives, even thought it was going to hurt. Confession must always be accompanied by concrete steps of action. “Now then make confession to the Lord, the God of your fathers and do his will. Separate yourselves from the peoples of the land and from the foreign wives” (Ezra 10:11 ESV). Sin always has consequences. And true confession always has next steps.

How would I apply what I’ve read to my own life?

None of this would have taken place had not Ezra been willing to intercede on behalf of the people. He alone was struck by the severe nature of their predicament. He recognized the danger they were in and knew that God would be completely justified in punishing them for their sins. So he stepped in and called out to God on behalf of the entire nation. We need more men and women with the spirit of Ezra today. The church of Jesus Christ is wracked by sin. We have “intermarried” with this world. We have compromised our convictions and cozied up with the world, allowing it to diminish our influence and dim our light. The church has become complacent and allowed the love of the world to infect itself. We are weak and ineffective. We have lost our influence. But just as in the days of Ezra, all it takes is one man or woman to step in, stand up, and speak out. We must be willing to come before the Lord and intercede on behalf of the body of Christ. We must be willing to say what no one else is willing to say. We must recognize that our sense of corporate culpability. I am reminded of the words of the Lord found in the book of Revelation. To the church in Ephesus, He said, “I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first” (Revelation 2:4 ESV). To the church in Laodidea, he said, “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot or cold, I will spit you out of my mouth” (Revelation 3:15 ESV). The writer of Hebrews reminds us that we have a High Priest in Jesus, who is interceding on our behalf. He knows our weaknesses. He understands our struggle with sin. Which is why He left us His Spirit to assist us as we live in this world. But we must also intercede for one another, confessing our sins, admitting our guilt, and calling on God to extend mercy and grace in our time of need. James would remind us, “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working” (James 5:16 ESV).

Father, Your Church is in need of healing. We are weakened by compromise and complacency. We have fallen in love with the world and allowed it to distract us from our true calling as Your children. Lord, give me a sense of corporate responsibility. The sins of the one affect the many. But the prayers of the one can go a long way in bringing about corporate confession and healing. May I be an intercessor in this day. Amen