The King is coming, and coming again: Zechariah

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Today’s reading: Zechariah 8-14.

Peter Lynch had a remarkable ability to pick stocks. He managed the Magellan Fund from 1977 to 1990, and under his direction the fund gained 29% a year on average, a record that had not been beaten as of 2003. The accuracy of his predictions drew legions of investors and the fund grew from an initial size of $18 million to over $14 billion in assets. We put our trust in people who are able to make accurate predictions.

Zechariah also made some amazingly accurate predictions. Five hundred years before Jesus lived, he wrote the following about Israel’s Messiah:

  • See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. (9:9; predicting Jesus’ triumphal entry to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday)
  • So they paid me thirty pieces of silver. And the LORD said to me, “Throw it to the potter”–the handsome price at which they priced me! So I took the thirty pieces of silver and threw them into the house of the LORD to the potter. (11:12-13; predicting Judas’ betrayal of Jesus for thirty pieces of silver)
  • Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered (13:7, predicting how the disciples would flee when Jesus was arrested)

Zechariah went on to describe the terrible events that would happen between Jesus’ crucifixion and the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Then he turned his attention to the end times when the Messiah will come again. We can trust what he said because it is God’s word, and because of his proven accuracy.

  • The nations of the world will attack Jerusalem to overthrow it.
  • The Messiah will return to stop the attack, setting foot on the Mount of Olives
  • The attackers will be completely destroyed by a plague that destroys their flesh.
  • A geological cataclysm will reshape the Holy Land, and Jerusalem will be lifted up higher than the surrounding hills.
  • The Jews who survive will put their faith, the entire nation, in Jesus their Messiah.

And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and supplication. They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son… On that day a fountain will be opened to the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and impurity. Zechariah 12:10, 13:1

After this great conversion God says that he will dwell with his people in Jerusalem and that all the nations of the world will come to the city to worship. They will celebrate the feast of Tabernacles, in memory of the thousands of years that both Jews and Gentiles had wandered in the wilderness of separation from God. And everything will be set apart and made holy to the LORD, down to the most mundane cooking pot.

Image by Vaughan Nelson on Flickr, CC by-nc-sa 2.0

Better get ready: Zechariah

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Today’s reading: Zechariah 1-7.

God’s patience is unlimited, but with the return of the exiles it feels like he hit the fast forward button, sweeping out the old and preparing for the new. Zechariah’s prophetic visions reflect the frenzy and outline God’s plan for renewal. The next to last Old Testament book paves the way for the New Testament.

First vision: Horsemen. God is watching over the Jews and the world in order to show compassion to Jerusalem and Zion.

Second vision: Horns. God will remove the horns (nations) that plundered Jerusalem.

Third vision: Man with a measuring line. God will carry out his design to restore Jerusalem.

Fourth vision: Joshua the priest’s filthy garments. God will purify his leaders, symbolic of the cleansing that will come to all his people.

” ‘Listen, O high priest Joshua and your associates seated before you, who are men symbolic of things to come: I am going to bring my servant, the Branch. See, the stone I have set in front of Joshua! There are seven eyes on that one stone, and I will engrave an inscription on it,’ says the LORD Almighty, ‘and I will remove the sin of this land in a single day.’ ” Zechariah 3:8-9

God’s plan for the future centers around his servant, the Branch. Isaiah (chapter 11) said the Branch would grow out of Jesse’s stump and have the spirit of the LORD. Jeremiah (chapter 23) said he was the righteous branch raised up for David to rule as king. God will restore Jerusalem so the Branch may come and perform his ministry of removing sin. He will do it in a single day, perhaps signifying the day of his sacrificial death, or looking forward to a future day when all the Jews will profess faith in him.

Fifth vision: Lampstand and Olive Trees. The spirit of God, not human will or power, will be the driving force behind God’s plan to restore Jerusalem and prepare the way for the Messiah. God will use his people as a light to the nations.

Sixth vision: Flying Scroll. God’s word as exemplified by the Ten Commandments will go forth to remove sin from individuals.

Seventh vision: Woman in a Basket. God will remove the sin and wickedness of the nation and carry it away to Babylon, the home of wickedness.

Eighth vision: Four chariots. God’s messengers go out to accomplish God’s will throughout the world, most likely a work of judgment.

The coronation. The crowning of Joshua, the high priest, foretells of the coming of the priest-king, Jesus (Yeshua).

Here is the comfort of every believer in the Lord Jesus; let the work of grace be ever so small in its beginnings, the plummet is in good hands, a master builder greater than Solomon has undertaken the raising of the heavenly temple, and He will not fail nor be discouraged till the topmost pinnacle shall be raised. If the plummet were in the hand of any merely human being, we might fear for the building, but the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in Jesus’ hand. The works did not proceed irregularly, and without care, for the master’s hand carried a good instrument. Had the walls been hurriedly run up without due superintendence, they might have been out of the perpendicular; but the plummet was used by the chosen overseer. Jesus is evermore watching the erection of His spiritual temple, that it may be built securely and well. We are for haste, but Jesus is for judgment. He will use the plummet, and that which is out of line must come down, every stone of it. Hence the failure of many a flattering work, the overthrow of many a glittering profession. It is not for us to judge the Lord’s church, since Jesus has a steady hand, and a true eye, and can use the plummet well. Do we not rejoice to see judgment left to Him? – Charles Spurgeon

Image by Squiggle on Flickr, CC by-nc-sa 2.0

Putting God first: Haggai

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Today’s reading: Haggai 1-2.

If any of you Christian people are tempted to put off some service for God which lies upon your heart, I pray you to remember your Lord’s words, and to imitate his prompt action, “I must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work.” – Charles Spurgeon

Priorities. Why are they so hard to get right? Personally, I think it’s because we so often selfishly seek our own desires. Or, we give in to the tyranny of the urgent rather than focusing on the more important but quieter eternal matters. The Jews who returned from exile to rebuild Jerusalem failed to make God’s house a priority, and they suffered because of it.

“You expected much, but see, it turned out to be little. What you brought home, I blew away. Why?” declares the LORD Almighty. “Because of my house, which remains a ruin, while each of you is busy with his own house.” Haggai 1:9

The cause of their neglect was busyness. The result of their neglect was loss – loss of material things, prosperity, satisfaction, comfort – and God says they were unclean because of their failure to put him first.

Haggai confronted the leaders and the people with their failure and they listened. He may be the only prophet who actually saw the Israelites respond to his message. The people resumed their work on the temple and completed it. It was nowhere near as grand a building as the first temple, but that was not God’s plan. He said this temple would be more glorious than Solomon’s temple, and it was, because of the one who glorified it.

“This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘In a little while I will once more shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land. I will shake all nations, and the desired of all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory,’ says the LORD Almighty.” Haggai 2:6-7

Jesus glorified the second temple when he taught and ministered in it, making a way for God’s peace as Haggai prophesied. Among his teachings was an important one about priorities:

“But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” Matthew 6:33

Jesus said not to be anxious about material things like food, clothing, and shelter. Don’t worry about the future. Instead, put God first in your thoughts and actions and he will take care of all those things. “All this and heaven too.”

Image by Robert S. Donovan on Flickr, CC by 2.0

The Just shall Live by Faith: Habukkak 2

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Today’s reading: Habakkuk – Zephaniah.

Wrestling is at the heart of Habakkuk. The prophet was wrestling with God when he wrote the book. Why were the wicked prospering? What was God up to as he delayed judgment? When would God act and make things right? Habakkuk lived in Jerusalem at a time, before the exile, when the wickedness of Judah’s political and religious leaders seemed ripe and overdue for judgment.

Martin Luther was wrestling with God 2,000 years later when Habakkuk took center stage in his thoughts. He was struggling with assurance of salvation, and failing to find peace with God by his own works, when the reality of “the just shall live by faith” blazed into his soul.

“Before those words broke upon my mind I hated God and was angry with him because, not content with frightening us sinners by the law and by the miseries of life, he still further increased our torture by the gospel. But when, by the Spirit of God, I understood those words – ‘The just shall live by faith!’ ‘The just shall live by faith!’ – then I felt born again like a new man; I entered through the open doors into the very Paradise of God.”

Habakkuk’s wrestling brought him face-to-face with God’s answer that he would act soon by sending Babylon to punish Judah. Luther’s wrestling put an end to his struggle to find peace with God, and helped launch the Reformation. The New Testament writers understood the significance of God’s statement to Habakkuk, using it three different times to magnify each of the three key words.

The Just.

“I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.'” Romans 1:16-17

The just person is the righteous person. They are righteous because they have been restored to a right relationship with God. They have been justified, declared legally innocent of all charges. This righteousness is the character of the man or woman of faith. Living by faith is the lifestyle of the just or righteous person.

Shall Live.

“All who rely on observing the law are under a curse, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.’ Clearly no one is justified before God by the law, because, ‘The righteous will live by faith.’ The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, ‘The man who does these things will live by them.'” Galatians 3:10-12

Paul’s point in Galatians is that eternal life comes by faith. The one who finds life finds it by faith, not by keeping the works of the law. Another way to state the same fact is that the person who lives a life of faith is the one who will gain eternal life.

By Faith.

“You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. For in just a very little while, ‘He who is coming will come and will not delay. But my righteous one will live by faith. And if he shrinks back, I will not be pleased with him.’ But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are saved.” Hebrews 11:36-39

The writer of Hebrews stressed that faith was the necessary ingredient for salvation. We keep believing in order to receive what God has promised. Perseverance or patient endurance describes the faith that assures salvation.

Habakkuk began by questioning God’s methods, but he ended by living out the righteous faith that God ordained. He was able to speak words of hope that have set an example for all who wrestle with difficult situations. “Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Savior.”

Image by Diogo Martins on Flickr, CC by-nc-sa 2.0

The end of Assyria: Nahum

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Today’s reading: Nahum 1-3.

“Why do those Assyrians keep popping up in the Old Testament?”

Assyria dominated the Middle East from the ninth to seventh centuries BC. Its territory stretched from modern-day Iraq through Syria to Jordan, Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea. It used advanced military technology to conquer surrounding nations and its cruelty was legendary. Nineveh, the same city that Jonah preached in, was its capitol. As Assyria grew in power it threatened the survival of both Israel and Judah, who had never faced such a mighty enemy.

841 BC Assyria begins to exact tribute from Israel.

760 BC (about) Jonah preaches in Nineveh and the city repents.

744 BC Tiglath-pileser III (called Pul in the Bible) reigns, and in 733 begins to invade Israel. Judah, under King Ahaz, pays tribute to Assyria to avoid conflict. Ahaz even builds a shrine to the Assyrian god, Asshur, in the temple at Jerusalem.

721 BC Assyria, led by Shalmaneser V and then Sargon II, defeats Israel and destroys the Northern Kingdom.

704 BC Sennacherib reigns; Hezekiah is king in Judah, and in 701 Assyria surrounds Jerusalem, only to withdraw after 185,000 troops die in a single night.

630 BC (about) Nahum prophesies that Nineveh will fall.

612 BC Fall of Nineveh to the Babylonians and Medes; Josiah is king in Judah.

Nineveh had repented of its godless ways when Jonah preached there, but their devotion to the Lord didn’t last. They resumed their idolatry and ruthless warfare and brought down God’s final judgment. Nahum’s message was one of condemnation for Nineveh, but of hope for Judah since the Assyrians would no longer trouble them (Nahum means hope).

From you, [O Nineveh,] has one come forth who plots evil against the LORD and counsels wickedness. This is what the LORD says: “Although they have allies and are numerous, they will be cut off and pass away. Although I have afflicted you, [O Judah,] I will afflict you no more. Now I will break their yoke from your neck and tear your shackles away.” Nahum 1:11-13

Listen to the charges God brought against Nineveh:

  • a city of blood, full of lies, full of plunder, never without victims
  • the wanton lust of a harlot, alluring, the mistress of sorceries, who enslaved nations by her prostitution and peoples by her witchcraft
  • one who plots evil against the LORD and counsels wickedness

Two points that are noteworthy about Assyria and its capital city:

  1. God used Assyria as his rod to punish Israel, but punished Assyria in turn for its wickedness.
  2. God was patient with Assyria, even sending his messenger to preach repentance, but in the end there was a limit to his patience. He said he could not let the guilty go unpunished.

It might seem that the Assyrians disappeared without a trace, but even today there are people living in the Middle East who identify themselves as ethnically Assyrian, and most of them are Christian. 

You remember in what foul-mouthed language Rabshakeh addressed king Hezekiah; and God now declares that there shall be no more such letters as his. God may allow evil to lord it over his people for a while; but he puts a hook in the mouth of the leviathan by-and-by. He that restraineth the sea and the waves thereof, Jehovah is his name, and he restraineth the wickedness of men. – Charles Spurgeon

Can this be fixed? Micah

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Today’s reading: Micah 1-7.

Each of us has a worldview, an understanding of how things work. For some it’s a crafted philosophy. For others it’s based on assumptions that are never consciously considered. But all worldviews seek to answer the basic questions of life:

  • How did I get here?
  • What went wrong?
  • Can this be fixed?

All the “isms” aim to provide answers to these questions. As an example, communism would say that things went wrong when owners oppressed workers to extract wealth, and that the way to fix things is to take away rights of property and make everyone equal in producing and consuming. Capitalism, in contrast, would say that the problem began when governments gave advantages to privileged or protected producers, and that the way to solve the problem is to empower entrepreneurs by giving them unregulated access to markets.

The people of Israel knew how we got here. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” They were not so understanding about what went wrong or how to fix it, but Micah knew the answers and was not afraid to share them.

The people were unrepentant sinners.

Woe to those who plan iniquity, to those who plot evil on their beds! At morning’s light they carry it out because it is in their power to do it. They covet fields and seize them, and houses, and take them. They defraud a man of his home, a fellowman of his inheritance. Therefore, the LORD says: “I am planning disaster against this people, from which you cannot save yourselves.” Micah 2:1-3

God was beginning to judge them.

Therefore, I have begun to destroy you, to ruin you because of your sins. You will eat but not be satisfied; your stomach will still be empty. You will store up but save nothing, because what you save I will give to the sword. You will plant but not harvest; you will press olives but not use the oil on yourselves, you will crush grapes but not drink the wine. Micah 6:13-15

God would soon destroy their home.

Her leaders judge for a bribe, her priests teach for a price, and her prophets tell fortunes for money. Yet they lean upon the LORD and say, “Is not the LORD among us? No disaster will come upon us.”  Therefore because of you, Zion will be plowed like a field, Jerusalem will become a heap of rubble, the temple hill a mound overgrown with thickets. Micah 3:11-12

God would send a shepherd to redeem them.

“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times” … He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. And they will live securely, for then his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth. And he will be their peace. Micah 5:2-5

The people will one day repent of their sin and return to God.

Do not gloat over me, my enemy! Though I have fallen, I will rise. Though I sit in darkness, the LORD will be my light. Because I have sinned against him, I will bear the LORD’s wrath, until he pleads my case and establishes my right. He will bring me out into the light; I will see his righteousness. Micah 7:8-9

God will forgive them.

Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance? You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy. You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea. You will be true to Jacob, and show mercy to Abraham, as you pledged on oath to our fathers in days long ago. Micah 7:18-20

God will then restore their nation.

In the last days the mountain of the LORD’s temple will be established as chief among the mountains; it will be raised above the hills, and peoples will stream to it. Many nations will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.” The law will go out from Zion, the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He will judge between many peoples and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide. Micah 4:1-3

Our Christian worldview begins with the recognition that we were created by God. We are here by God’s will, not chance, and so our first duty is to him. Man marred God’s perfect creation by sinning, and our transgressions continue. All that’s wrong with the world flows out of our disobedience. Yet God, in mercy, provided a way for our guilt to be removed. The shepherd born in Bethlehem will lead not only the Jews, but all who believe in him, to the Promised Land of fellowship with God.

“The promise of the Redeemer at first was vaguely general ( Gen 3:15 ). Then the Shemitic division of mankind is declared as the quarter in which He was to be looked for ( Gen 9:26, 27 ); then it grows clearer, defining the race and nation whence the Deliverer should come, namely, the seed of Abraham, the Jews (Gen 12:3 ); then the particular tribe, Judah ( Gen 49:10 ); then the family, that of David (Psa 89:19, 20 ); then the very town of His birth, here. And as His coming drew nigh, the very parentage ( Mat 1:1-17, Luk 1:26-35, 2:1-7 ); and then all the scattered rays of prophecy concentrate in Jesus, as their focus ( Hbr 1:1, 2 ).”  A. R. Fausset

“Israel’s deliverance from her long travail-pains of sorrow will synchronize with the appearance of Messiah as her Redeemer ( Rom 11:26 ) in the last days …  when Christ, having been preached for a witness to all nations, shall at last appear as the Deliverer of Jacob, and when the times of the Gentiles shall be fulfilled, and Israel as a nation shall be born in a day ( Isa 66:7-11, Luk 21:24, Rev 12:1, 2, 4; compare Rom 8:22 ).” A. R. Fausset

Image by @sage_solar on Flickr, CC by 2.0

The reluctant missionary: Jonah

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Today’s reading: Obadiah, Jonah.

“Jonah and the whale. Isn’t that just a kid’s story?”

There’s so much content packed into the short story of Jonah. There’s a broken hero, danger at sea, the mysterious big fish, the impossibility of Jonah’s salvation, and the unexpected outcome of his mission. It’s definitely much more than a children’s story. It’s about the power of God’s word, his big heart for the lost people of the world, and our role in relating that love to people we may consider as enemies. Even Jesus had something to say about Jonah.

I don’t remember what pastor preached this outline on the book of Jonah, but I’ve always found it makes the story easy to remember.

Running away from God. Jonah rejects God’s call to go and preach to Nineveh. He tries to go as far away as possible, thinking foolishly that he can outrun the LORD. Instead, a storm threatens to sink his ship until the sailors realize who is responsible and throw him overboard.

Running to God. Imprisoned in the belly of a big fish, Jonah repents of his disobedience and returns to God. Then the fish regurgitates Jonah on the shore.

Running with God. In the most successful evangelism campaign ever, the entire city of Nineveh turns to the LORD in response to Jonah’s simple message of coming judgment.

Jonah obeyed the word of the LORD and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very important city–a visit required three days. On the first day, Jonah started into the city. He proclaimed: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.” The Ninevites believed God. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth. When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. Jonah 3:3-6

Running ahead of God. Jonah wallows in anger over God’s forgiveness of Nineveh, revealing the reason for the prophet’s reluctance to preach there. God shows his compassion for people in contrast to Jonah’s selfishness.

The most amazing thing about Jonah’s story is how effectively he witnessed for God in spite of himself. As the storm threatened to sink his ship, the sailors glorified God when they heard Jonah name his LORD and saw how the storm stopped when Jonah was tossed overboard. Though he hated the Ninevites and only wanted to see them destroyed by God, his eight-word sermon converted the entire city. We should remember the power of just being God’s person anytime we begin to doubt our ability to witness.

Jesus didn’t consider Jonah to be a story-book character. He mentioned him as a real-life example foreshadowing his own miraculous resurrection.

Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.” He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here.” Matthew 12:38-41

I’ve always thought of Jonah’s burial in the fish as just being symbolic of Jesus’ burial in the grave for three days, but here’s another way to think about it. Jonah was a sign to the people of Nineveh (perhaps because of how he looked after three days in the fish’s stomach). Jesus’ three days in the grave is a sign to us – of how much God loves us. He loves us so much that he was willing to condemn his own son to die for us.

There is no change in God, absolutely considered, but there is often an apparent change, that which he threatens, while men remain in sin, is not executed upon them when they repent and turn to him. He is always the same God. from the beginning, he has been “the Lord God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.” If he did not pardon sin, when men turn from it with sincere repentance, he would have changed his method of dealing with the penitent; but when he does forgive, it is according to his way from the beginning, for he has ever been a tender, and compassionate, and gracious God. – Charles Spurgeon

Image by mamnamie on Flickr, CC by 2.0