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Revelation – God Wraps Up His Plan

We’ve now come to the end of the Bible.  The book of Revelation serves as the matching bookend to the book of Genesis.  But just because this is the last book, we’re not done with the story of the Bible by a long shot.  This last book packs a big punch!

Revelation was written about forty years after Paul’s epistles.  It was written by the Apostle John from exile on a small island named Patmos.  It wasn’t a book that he planned to write, but under the power of the Holy Spirit, he was given a message through a series of visions, intended for the churches of his day.

The first verse of the first chapter declares what the book is about and its purpose.  “The Revelation of Jesus Christ” is the theme of this book.  Some people incorrectly call the book “Revelations” – a plural version of the correct title.  However, there is only one revelation in this book, Jesus Christ Himself.

In chapter one, John described how the book came about.  While worshipping on a Sunday, he heard a voice at turned to see a vision of Jesus.  John could make no mistake about who he saw.  He spent three years with Jesus and was named as the disciple that Jesus loved.  He even saw Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration.  So when he saw the vision, he knew exactly who he was looking at.

In Revelation 1:19 Jesus instructed John to write about three different topics. 

  1. What John saw
  2. Things that were
  3. Things that were to come

What John Saw

In short, John saw a vision of the glorified Jesus.  Standing amongst an array of seven lamps, Jesus dominated John’s vision.  John reported that Jesus appeared as a human wearing a white robe with a golden sash.  He had white hair and glowing eyes.  His feet were dark but shiny and His voice washed over John in a rush of sound.  In one hand he held seven stars and words came out of His mouth as sharp as a sword.

Over all this, Jesus’ face shone as bright as the sun.  That wasn’t a gentle glow.  It was a radiant light that hurt John’s eyes.

When John saw Jesus, the beloved disciple fell at His feet, unmoving.  John knew he was unworthy to be in the presence of such glory and holiness.  But Jesus, Himself, raised John and began speaking to him.

Jesus explained that he was standing in the middle of His church.  The lamps represented seven churches, and the stars in His hand represented the messengers, or angels, of those churches.  Here we see the continuing fulfillment of Matthew 16:19 where Jesus promised to build His church.

Further, He instructed John to write this down and send it to the seven churches around the Roman province of Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey).  And this is exactly whom John dedicated the book to. (1:4)

Things That Are

In terms of current events, John was given specific messages to the seven churches.  These were not all of the churches in existence.  We saw many other churches that Paul planted in the book of Acts.  However, the number seven represents perfection or completion, so in these seven churches, all the churches of John’s day (and through to our day) were represented. 

Serving as Jesus’ scribe, John wrote down the exact message that Jesus had for His churches.  How would you respond if Jesus sent a personal letter to your church?  What if you could read Jesus’ assessment of the strengths and weaknesses, faithfulness, and disobedience of your church?

Each of the seven churches that Jesus chose had a different set of strengths and weaknesses.  Some were doing well.  Others were not on mission properly.  So Jesus called what He saw in their corporate life and issued corrections and instructions for that church.

Our churches today are not going to get a specially dictated message from Jesus.  But we can look into the seven messages that Jesus did deliver and find our church represented in that list and hear His message for us. 

The Message to Ephesus

Ephesus was a significant metropolis and the commercial center of the entire province of Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey).  It had a large port on the Aegean Sea and was famous for its temple to Diana, which was listed as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

Paul founded the church and sent his protégé Timothy to be the pastor there.   In all Paul visited at least twice and wrote three letters to Ephesus, one to the church and two to Timothy.  John also spent many of his later years in Ephesus.

Jesus’ message to the church in Ephesus was a commendation of how well they held to the true faith.  But they had abandoned their first love.  They followed the rules very well, but there was no heart or emotion in their worship.  Jesus calls upon this church to repent and return to how they were when they first believed in Him.

The Message to Smyrna

The city of Smyrna also had a port on the Aegean Sea and considered itself a rival of Ephesus.  But the church’s similarity with Ephesus ended there.  Instead of being powerful and dominant, the church was persecuted and the people who attended were poor, common people.

Jesus’ words to the church at Smyrna were exclusively that of compassion and commendation.  He knew they were facing persecution and even martyrdom for their faith.   Yet they persevered, and the church continued to flourish and grow.

The Message to Pergamum

Pergamum was an ancient city of learning and a cultural seat.  It also featured multiple temples to the Roman emperors and a strong pagan culture.  Despite this ungodly culture, the church there persevered.  Even though they experienced sharp persecution (culminating in the death of a prominent believer named Antipas), they were not dissuaded from their faith.

However, Jesus accused them of tolerating false teachers. Jesus named several false teachers or systems of heretical thought.  While the leaders of the church didn’t embrace these teaching s themselves, they permitted teachers in their midst and did not take action to apply discipline or remove them from the body.

The Message to Thyatira

The city of Thyatira had very little to commend it.  It was not a major city but was located on a trade route.   Many different trading guilds operated out of the city.  Perhaps because of the power of these guilds, the church made compromises in their teachings.    Jesus acknowledged that their later activities were better than their former activities.  In other words, they were growing in zeal for their faith.

But Jesus had no tolerance for their compromise.  Even worse than the ideas of compromise, they tolerated a “Jezebel” in their midst.   This leader claimed to be Christian, but actively lead the church into sexual sin, most likely in pagan rites in the local temples.  Jesus promises a strong judgment upon this person and upon all who aligned themselves with her.

The Message to Sardis

Sardis was a ruined city.  Beset by pride and false confidence, it had been taken by the Persians and the Romans.  In AD 17, a tremendous earthquake devastated the city and it never recovered.  Now eighty years later, the church there resembled the city.  Jesus had very little positive to say to the church.  Beyond acknowledging a few individuals in the church who held to the true faith, His words were all judgment.

Jesus called the church at Sardis “dead.”  Even though they were active and appeared to be vital, He could see the truth of their hearts and they were dead.  He told them that if they did not wake up, He would come as a thief and take away even what they did have. 

The church at Sardis stands as a warning for us today that just calling ourselves a church is not enough to please Jesus.  He expects to see life and fruit coming from our service.

The Message to Philadelphia

The same earthquake which ruined Sardis also damaged Philadelphia.  However, the city recovered and went on to be a leading city in the center of the Anatolian peninsula.  The church here is the second of two which received no condemnation from Jesus.  He recognized their perseverance, even though they had little power in this world.

Jesus promised to set straight the “synagogue of Satan” who afflicted the church in Philadelphia.  This group of people, who must have advocated a form of Judaism as a prerequisite for Christianity, claimed to be loved by God more than the others.  But Jesus promised to bring them low and show them that He loved His church, and not them.

The Message to Laodicea

Laodicea was a wealthy city, with a prominent banking guild.  The city also had earthquake problems but was wealthy enough that it refused Rome’s offer to help them rebuild.  In this, they were proud and self-sufficient.  The church there was neither on fire nor dead.  Jesus had no commendation for them.  He knew their works and they were “neither hot nor cold”.

Because of their lukewarm faith, Jesus promised if they didn’t change, He would spit them out of his mouth.  Were they to be on fire, He would appreciate the passion of their zeal.  Were they to turn away from Him entirely, He would bring correction to them according to their deeds.  But they were apathetic, in the middle, and therefore of no use to Him.

The Lesson of the Churches

In Jesus’ messages to these seven churches, we gain clear insight into the heart of our Lord.  He valued passionate service.  Often he commended churches for clinging to the truth in the face of persecution and opposition.  Those churches that clung to Him and refused to turn aside from this faithful path were His favorites.

By the same token, He had harsh words for those churches which did not follow the gospel.  The churches that allowed false teachers to take hold were particular anathema to Him.  And the Ephesian church who left the passion of their first love received a similar judgment.

To the degree that churches today have similar characteristics, we can identify the opinion that Jesus holds of them.  He is not grateful for any church that puts His name on the door.  Even today He seeks churches that are sold out to Him and fully in love with Him. 

Revelation chapters two and three stand as a testimony to us today for how we should function as churches.  We are warned of the errors to avoid.  We are told what our Savior desires of us.  We would do well to take the admonition of these churches and apply them to our modern churches as well.

The Things That Will Be

Following the messages to the churches, John was given a vision of certain things that were going to happen.  These events were portrayed in symbolic and apocalyptic images that John translated into words for us today.

In Matthew 24, Jesus’ disciples asked Him when He planned to come in power.  Jesus told His disciples that no one knew the day or the hour that He would come as the Ruler.  Only God in His omniscience knew that.

This coming of God to reclaim the Earth and establish His literal and direct rule is discussed throughout the Bible.    In the Old Testament, it’s often called “The Day of the Lord.”  It’s the coming of God to right all wrongs, establish justice on Earth, and punish those who have earned His wrath.

Without revealing any of the timing, John was shown what must come to pass for the Day of the Lord to arrive.

This part of the book of Revelation is hard to read and even more difficult to understand.  It communicates through image and metaphor rather than clear messages.  But from it, we can draw some insights about the end of days and the advent of a new order.

Jesus Is Revealed as the Redeemer Lamb of God

Suddenly John was taken to a new vision where he witnessed the worship of God on His throne.  John very carefully presents a vision of the royalty and majesty of God.  The description is almost poetic, suggesting that it was too wonderful for a clear description.  John was left to try to paint pictures with images and word pictures to give us a hint of what he saw.

Into this perfect worship scene, John discovered a problem.  In His hand, God held a scroll, wound tight, and sealed to prevent it from being opened.  Looking around the throne room, no one was found who satisfied the requirements to open the scroll.

John reacted to this with raw emotion.  He broke down and wept.  That the scroll remained unopened and it appeared that it would remain that way.

What was the scroll?

Based on the description of the scroll in Revelation 5:1, I believe that it was a scroll of title.  The verse says that it had writing inside the scroll and on the outside of the scroll.  We see a similar scroll in the book of Jeremiah 32:6-12.  On the inside of the scroll was the title to a piece of land.  The outside described the terms of who could open the document or claim it.

With God sitting on the throne, no one in His court could open the scroll.  They didn’t meet the terms that were specified on the outside.

John, knowing that this was the deed or title to all of creation, broke down in sorrow that if the deed could not be contained then the prince of the power of the air would continue dominion over all of the earth.  Ever since Adam had declared his allegiance to the serpent, Satan had been the ruler of the earth.  He had even gone so far as an offer to trade that dominion to Jesus if Jesus would only bow down and worship him.

The vision takes us to the brink of despair that no one would redeem creation.  But at the last moment, John saw a new figure emerge.  Jesus, appearing as a lamb who had been slain stepped forward and claimed the scroll.

As soon as this happened, all heaven broke out in song.  Everyone in the throne room bowed down and praised the worthy name of Jesus.  Thousands upon thousands of angelic beings burst forth with one voice, singing of the worthiness and glory of Jesus.  He had become human, satisfied the law, and paid the price to meet the terms of the scroll.  He was able to reclaim the title and bring about the Day of the Lord.

Jesus opens the scroll and judgment is unleashed

As Jesus opens the seals on the scroll, God’s judgment begins to pour out upon the earth and the people who live on it.  No longer is God restrained.  But He unleashes the full measure of His judgment. 

John saw this judgment but may not have understood everything he saw.  He describes the judgments in apocalyptic and poetic terms that make it very hard to imagine how such things could happen.

What is clear is that God’s wrath touches everything.  The sun, the moon, and stars will be reduced by one third.  Earthquakes will shake the ground.  The oceans and rivers will become poisonous and unfit for drinking or fishing.  War and famine cover the earth and people die in multitudes.  Demonic beasts will roam the earth, tormenting everyone they encounter.

John wrote of three rounds of seven judgments that God will unleash upon the earth.  Each judgment on earth was initiated by an action in heaven (breaking a seal, blowing a trumpet, pouring out a bowl).  He witnessed a fourth round, but when he started to write about it, an angel stopped him, saying it was too terrible to share.

Humanity responds to God’s Judgment

While God’s judgment rained down on the earth, John was allowed to see how humanity responded.  A ruler of peace emerged to broker a treaty in the Middle-East.  After only three and a half years, however, his treachery was revealed and instead of protecting Israel, he turned upon them.

With God’s restraining presence removed, John saw Satan place two leaders over the earth to bring about his wicked plan and attempt one more time to foil God’s plans.  These two leaders, one political and one religious institute a one-world government and religion.  In very short order, they copy God’s miracles to claim to be worthy of worship themselves.

As God’s judgment rains down, people on the earth do not turn toward Him in repentance.  Rather they turn to Satan’s puppets and declare their allegiance to the ruler of the Earth.  The harder God’s punishment affects them, the more they turn away from God.

Finally, in a last desperate move, John saw all the armies of the earth gathered in the Valley of Megiddo in Israel, to march on the last outpost of God’s covenant people, the Israelites.  These armies would accomplish Satan’s objectives and prevent God from fulfilling His promises to His people.  If they could be killed, God’s promise of an eternal covenant and an eternal kingdom would be broken.

Jesus Returns, Victorious

With the armies of the world gathered and on the brink of wiping out God’s people, John saw Jesus return to Earth.  John knew Jesus in the first coming.  Jesus was meek and mild.  This time, however, Jesus comes in power and might, with an army of the redeemed at His back.

He did not need an army because when He spoke a word, John saw the armies defeated in a single stroke.  The devastation of the battle of Armageddon represents a decisive victory for Jesus over Satan’s power.

This is the Revelation from which the book derives its name.  Jesus is revealed as the Lord of all.  He is God almighty and holds all power in His hands.  None can stand against Him.

Revelation 20 describes the result of Christ’s return.  He sits on the throne and rules over the Earth for a thousand years.    His authority is absolute and cannot be denied.  Of Satan’s rule, nothing remains for Satan himself is bound away and not allowed access to the Earth.

At the end of this time, Satan will be released from his restrictions one last time and will return to his pattern of opposing God.  He will find followers on Earth and lead a short-lived rebellion.  But Jesus will demolish the uprising and bring His final judgment upon Satan.

Jesus as the Judge

John saw Jesus sitting on a throne of power, judging the people of the earth will finally be called to account for their deeds.  It does not matter how they fared in their life.  Every living person is brought forth and must face the judgment of God.

In this judgment, there are only two outcomes.  Some, those whose names were found in the Lamb’s Book of Life, will be accepted by God.  Covered by the blood of Jesus, they will not suffer judgment but will be accepted as sons and daughters.

Everyone else will be found guilty and sentenced to punishment.  As a holy God, He cannot overlook sin.  Every sin demands punishment, and He can no more turn away from that punishment than He can sin Himself.

This scene is called “The Great White Throne Judgment”.  It is the final judicial act of God over His creation.  At the end of the judgment, the slate is clean, all sin will have been paid for.  Some people will be invited to God’s household.  Others will be sent to the lake of fire and brimstone for an eternity separated from God.

A New Heaven and Earth

John finally saw that the Earth and the heavens above it were destroyed.  Tarnished by sin, they needed to be wiped clean.  In a new act of creation that mirrors Genesis 1, we see God again creates a new Heaven and a New Earth.  In this sin-free place, God’s glory is on display for all to see.

People will live on the earth and rather than a yellow star to provide their light, the glory of God will light their days.   His light will shine through the walls of the city of the New Jerusalem, which seems to orbit the New Earth, bringing day and night with every rotation.

A Fitting End

Revelation brings us full circle from the book of Genesis.  Here we see the culmination of God’s redemption and the promises He made to His people.  We see how His plan is never thwarted and comes to pass just as He wills, even though from our human perspective, events around us might seem to be out of control and heading in the wrong direction.

In the book of Revelation, we see how God plans to bring about Justice and Judgment, in His own time and way.    And we see it figuratively so that we cannot directly map our current events into a specific timeline that tells us when these things are going to happen.

But most of all, we see the glory of God on display.  He will not stand by and turn a blind eye to sin.  He keeps records of what has been done and will ensure that every act is called into account.  But the blood of Christ covers sins so that those who have been forgiven do not go through this judgment.  They are accepted into God’s family as sons and daughters.

Revelation ends on an optimistic, glorious note.  God will dwell amongst His creation and those who have been forgiven will dwell with Him forever.  And so shall we ever be with the Lord.

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Error and Instruction in the Early Church

The book of Acts describes how the Apostle Paul planted churches on his missionary journeys. He wasn’t the only one planting churches.  Before long, there were lots of churches all over the known world.  But since Christianity was so new, they fell pre to false teaching and ignorance about the truth of the Gospel.

To combat this error, Paul and others wrote letters.   They instructed people in the truth, refuted error, and praised them for remaining faithful.  Much of our New Testament is composed of these letters.  Out of twenty-seven books, twenty-one are letters written to believers to address issues or errors that were growing in the church.  They vary in length from the very hefty Romans and 1 Corinthians (16 chapters) down to the book of 2nd John (13 verses).

The letters, or “epistles,” can all be found after the book of Acts and before the book of Revelation.  Together they make up the bulk of the New Testament.

The first books are Paul’s letters to churches, organized from longest to shortest:

  • Romans
  • 1 & 2 Corinthians – Paul wrote a letter between these two, but it was not considered inspired and is not included in our Bible.
  • Galatians – Galatia was a region located in modern Turkey where Paul planted churches.  He wrote this letter to be shared among all the churches.
  • Ephesians – Ephesus was a large city on the coast of modern Turkey.  Paul’s protégé Timothy pastured there.
  • Philippians – The city of Philippi in Macedonia was the first city where Paul planted a church in Europe.
  • Colossians – this was written to the church in Colossae.
  • 1 & 2 Thessalonians – Thessaloniki was a major city in Macedonia where Paul planted a church on his second missionary journey.

Then we have Paul’s letters to individuals

  • 1 and 2 Timothy – Timothy was Paul’s student and became the pastor at the large church in Ephesus.
  • Titus – Another ministry partner of Paul, Titus was sent to the island of Crete to straighten out the church situation there.
  • Philemon – A friend of Paul’s whose slave had run away.  Paul sent the letter back to Philemon by the hand of the same slave, who was returning to resume his service.

The book of Hebrews comes next.  Written as an open letter to Jewish believers, we don’t know who wrote the letter.    It celebrates Jesus as the superior way, better than all other elements of the Jewish faith.

Next is the letter from James, the brother of Jesus, and the leader of the church in Jerusalem.  James wrote to the Jewish Christians who had fled Jerusalem because of the intense persecution of the Jews.

Then we have 2 letters from Peter, the disciple, and Apostle.  Very likely he wrote from Rome, possibly while imprisoned and awaiting his execution.


John, the Beloved Disciple has three short letters.  His can be seen as dealing with similar themes as what John followed in his Gospel.

Jude, one of the shortest letters in the New Testament was written by the brother of James – and another of Jesus half-siblings.

Together all these letters provide instruction on how to live the Christian life.  Often the readers were embroiled in some kind of issue or error that they needed to turn away from.  Other times, they needed to be reminded of the truth they already knew.  Some of the letters were written largely for encouragement.

In all, these letters were written by human hand, but inspired by the Holy Spirit.  They were practical to meet the needs of the initial readers in whatever circumstance they found themselves.  But they are are the words of God for us today. 

In his second letter to Timothy, the Apostle Paul describes the purpose and function of scripture.

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and training in righteousness, that the man (or woman) of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:15-16)

In these couple verses, Paul lays out a comprehensive system of maturation that is enabled and driven by the word of God.

  • Teaching.  The meaning of this word is to instruct in the truth.  God’s word teaches us the truth about God and ourselves and how we are to live.
  • Reproof.  To reprove means to point out or identify errors.  This means that when we stray from the truth, the Bible shows us the error of our ways.
  • Correction.  As you might expect, this means that the Bible adjusts our lives to bring us back into line with the truth.  This correction can be gentle or more direct, but the goal is to return us to right living.
  • Training.  Just like we train to become proficient at physical activities, the Bible trains us in spiritual matters.  Through practice and repetition, we become better at living in the truth

The people in the early church were all converts from some other religious system.  They carried habits and preferences for how to worship God into their Christian faith.  This led to conflict and error.

In the culture around the church were unscrupulous people who saw the new believers as ripe for deception.  Lacking maturity and knowledge, these wolves in sheep’s clothing came to the church and tried to introduce errors that favored them, either financially or in terms of prestige.

Needless to say, the early church needed clarity and instruction because they experienced all sorts of problems.  These letters were God’s answer for His people.

Fast forward two thousand years and the Church still struggles.  We fall victim to false teachings and misapply the truth, twisting it in ways it was never intended.  These letters to the early church are equally essential for us today.

The Bible is God’s word.  Every word of it.  It’s profitable for us to study it and apply it to our lives.

The Epistles Teach Sound Doctrine

Laced throughout the letters of the New Testament we find sound doctrine.  Doctrine means teaching that we affirm to be true.  This means that the epistles teach the truth.  It would be impossible to briefly list all the sound doctrine that we find in these books.  These few examples will serve to illustrate the kinds of truth we find.

The Bible identifies our true standing before God.  If you want a sobering read, take a look at the first three chapters of Paul’s letter to the Romans.  In painstaking detail, Paul builds a case that humanity is sinful and stands condemned before a holy God.

Romans 3:23 summarizes this very simply when it says “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” It is the cherry on the top of three hard-hitting chapters that don’t pull any punches.

The reality of our sinful state leads us to cry out for a Savior.  Trapped in the guilt of our sin, there is no other way that we can escape the deserved wrath of God.  This is Paul’s intention.  He wants us to be clear on where we stand apart from the grace of God.

The letter to the church in Philippi explained how Jesus could be both God and man at the same time.  In chapter two of his letter, Paul explained how Jesus set aside His divine rights, without giving up His divinity so that He could become human and subject Himself to the humiliation of public execution.

This is a really hard concept to get our heads around.  How can one Person be two things at the same time?  Paul offers an explanation that gives us more information but does not necessarily answer every question.  However, even though we don’t have all the answers we might want, Paul offers the comfort that Jesus did come as both God and Man.  Because He was human, He could be a perfect representative sacrifice for us.  But because He was God, he was able to satisfy the full demands of the law.

Without this revelation, we might be left to wonder about our salvation.  Instead, we are given information and insight that anchors us to the truth that was revealed to the Apostle Paul.

The Bible introduces us to spiritual gifts and explains that every believer is gifted by the Holy Spirit to contribute to their local body.  The church in Corinth had messed this up and was making a mess of things.  Paul wrote to them in 1 Corinthians 12 to set the record straight.

The issue of spiritual gifting was not well explained in the Old Testament.  So there was little information for the early Christians to use to understand this amazing thing that had happened to them.  Fortunately, Paul’s Holy Spirit fueled letter provided just what they needed, and what we need, to understand what the Spirit does for us.

This teaching also instructs us in the truth that every believer has a role to play in the life of their church.  There are no spectator gifts.  Everyone has a contribution to make.  Everyone participated in the mission by serving one another.

This passage teaches important truths about how Christians should relate together and how they should expect a diversity of roles.  These differences are less about the value of the gift, but about serving all the different needs of the Body of Christ.

The Epistles Tackle Error

Even though the early church had the Apostles, they still managed to find their way into all sorts of false teaching.  Today we are no better off.  We are just as likely to stray from the truth of God’s word and need to be shown the error of our ways.

In the very short book of Jude, the author writes to an unnamed group of believers to point out to them the dangers of listening to false teachers who would lead them away from the truth into apostasy. 

For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ. (Jude 1:5)

Jude then goes on to remind his readers what God has reserved for those to turn from the truth.  He points to the fate of the Egyptians, the fallen angels, and even the residents of Sodom and Gomorrah.  His warning is loud and clear about straying from the path into false teachings. 

To the people in the churches of Galatia, Paul writes of an encounter he had with the Apostle Peter.  Peter had been living among Gentiles and had adopted some of their practices.  But when he came to Jerusalem, he suddenly returned to the Jewish practices.  This added fuel to the raging debate of whether the gentile Christians had to also become Jewish converts.

Paul confronted Peter about his hypocrisy and that he was leading a bad example.  The gospel liberated people – it did not bind them to old rules and requirements.  The Jewish desire to force the gentiles into a Hebrew mold was misguided and needed to be stopped.

The error was the extra burden of following Jewish law.  Christ had fulfilled the law and given us the gospel.  It was wrong to return to the restrictions of that law, even though they may have been comforting and familiar.

In his first letter to the church in Corinth, Paul spends most of chapter five calling out the church for allowing people who were living in unrepentant sin to continue in the church without rebuke or correction.  Paul puts his finger right on the heart of the matter and tells them that this behavior is not good and must be immediately addressed.

The Epistles Offer Encouragement and Exhortation

The Epistles are not all bad news and correction.  They also encourage us that we have found something much better than we ever had before and that we are children of the King.

Hebrews eleven, often called “Faith’s Hall of Fame” celebrates the faith of many of the great men and women of the Old Testament.  They were given to us as examples to show us what faith in action looks like.   The entire chapter is filled with person after person and references to their faith.

Since we are surrounded by such a cloud of examples, then, we are encouraged to pursue faith on our own.  We follow the same God as all these great people.  And we have seen the mystery of the Gospel revealed in Jesus.  The Old Testament saints were looking forward, placing their faith in God to provide a way.  We know Who the way is, so we should be excited by what God has for us.

First John chapter four is often called the love chapter because the Apostle John exhorts his readers to love one another.

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. (1 John 4:7)

We who know God and have experienced His love are in the unique position of understanding what love is really like.  We’ve experienced it more deeply and broadly than mere human love.  Therefore, we ought to reflect the love that we have received.

In his letter to the church in Ephesus, Paul described our fight against “the evil one.”  Paul used the metaphor of a soldier in full armor deploying against the enemy.  Paul helpfully gives us our orders: “Stand Firm!”

We do not need to defeat the devil.  Jesus has already done that.  We simply need to resist him by standing firm.  And to do this, we’ve been given exactly the armor and tools we will need to succeed.

Paul’s exhortation to stand firm because the battle is already won is an encouragement to us today as we see the prevalence of evil and wickedness in the world around us.

The Epistles Instruct in Church Practice

Since the church was a new institution and Jesus promised that He would build the church, He also ensured that we were instructed how to properly be the church.  The epistles are loaded wit practical instructions for how the church (which is the household of God ) ought to be run.

In Titus and 2 Timothy, Paul describes the criteria for people to become leaders of the church.  Without these standards, the church would have been flooded with attention seekers and power mongers who wanted to use the power of the church for their purposes.

Paul provides very clear standards and qualifications for these leaders.  It gave the churches the ability to discern between appropriate leaders and dangerous wolves in sheep’s clothing.

In his letter to the Corinthians Paul instructed them on how to conduct their church services.  Their worship services had devolved into chaos.   Gluttony and selfishness had infected the celebration of the Lord’s Supper and people had created a value system of spiritual gifts that didn’t align with God’s purpose at all.

Paul wrote to them to rebuke them and provide clear teaching on the proper way to use gifts and take communion.  He wanted them to straighten out their practices so that God would be glorified.  Since God has not changed in the intervening years, the instructions for how to worship God hold for us today.

Peter, himself a pastor, wrote about the proper function and role of a pastor in the church.  It was not to be an exalted role, wielding power over the church.  The pastor was to consider himself an under-shepherd.  He did not have authority of his own but received a commission from the over-shepherd, who is Jesus.

This was a foreign concept in the early church.  But even today, we see people who try to grab any platform and use it for their ends.  Fortunately, God has provided us with the instruction that we need to not fall into that trap and live lives that bring glory to God.

These are only a few examples of what we find in the epistles.  To learn more, it’s great to dive in and study God’s communication to us.  There is much practical wisdom and effective correction and instruction in them.

The Epistles Are Not “Better”

Many people think these are the best parts of the Bible because they are written to people most like us.  They most directly address situations that are familiar and relevant to us today.  These people create a hierarchy of books of the Bible and place the epistles at the top.

This is not accurate or appropriate.  The entire Bible is God’s inspired word.  Every bit of it was “breathed out” by the Holy Spirit.  We cannot say that any part of God’s communication to us is better than any other part.

The epistles certainly have a direct application to us today.  However, we cannot elevate them over other parts of the Bible lest we fall into error ourselves.  We find amazing divine truth on every page, and should not be partial to one or another location.

At the same time, we cannot deny the practicality of these letters.  They speak directly to us, in our natural condition.  Just like the first-century church, we are people saved by grace, seeking to obey the word of God.  We have some advantages in that the entire Bible has been preserved for us, while the first century Christians were living through this period of revelation.

Dive into the epistles – but no more than any other book of the Bible.  All of God’s word is good.

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The Spread of the Church

So far in the book of Acts, we’ve watched the church explode onto the scene, beginning the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise in Matthew 16:18.  Propelled by the advent of the Holy Spirit and His dynamite power, Peter preached a great sermon and the harvest began.  Later the gospel spread to other cities and even to gentiles, with the same explosive results.

Luke, the writer of Acts, focuses on Peter as the key person who participated in these events.  However, part-way through the book, he changed focus to another major figure in the early church:  The Apostle Paul.

Paul the Great Persecutor

We first meet Paul as Saul of Tarsus, an up and coming Pharisee in the Jewish religious scene, in Acts chapter seven.  There we read that when Stephen, the first martyr was stoned, the people picking up stones laid their cloaks at Saul’s feet. (Acts 7:58) 

This seems like an odd comment for Luke to make.  Why would this be something to make it into the biblical record?  Our natural assumption might be to think that Saul was the lackey managing the coat closet.  It’s more likely that he was the one authorizing the stoning.    By presenting their cloaks, the people participating were formally submitting to his authority.  They were signing up to carry out his will.

This interpretation aligns well with the opening of Acts eight.  Saul approved of Stephen’s execution.  His approval was the opening of great persecution against Christians in Jerusalem.  The danger was so real that Christians fled the city and settled all over the eastern Mediterranean region. 

Paul’s Conversion

Acts nine opens with Saul “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.”  He wanted to follow the believers beyond the traditional borders of Israel into the city of Damascus (in modern-day Syria).  He was given orders and authorization to take to the leaders of the synagogues there, allowing him to arrest any Christians Jews who still worshipped in their synagogues.

It was on this persecution road trip that Saul met Jesus.  Blinded by a bright light, he heard the voice of Jesus.  Unable to see, he continued to Damascus where he took no action, but rather waited for Jesus to make the next move.  Three days later, God instructed a Damascene Christian named Ananias to go to Saul because “he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel.”

Saul believed and received the Holy Spirit.  This conversion set his life on a new path.  Not only did he forsake his commission to harass and persecute believers, but he also changed his name to Paul.

Saul, now Paul, set about engaging in the business of his Savior with the same intensity and determination as he had previously persecuted Jesus.  When he showed up in synagogues to worship and teach, he was met with resistance. 

“Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem of those who called upon this name? And has he not come here for this purpose, to bring them bound before the chief priests?” (Acts 9:21)

Needless to say, Paul was not able to immediately pivot from Great Antagonist to Great Advocate in one fell swoop.  Paul tried to meet with the apostles to tell his story, but they were afraid of him.  Not until a believer named Barnabas stepped forward to vouch for him was he able to share his conversion story.

The Apostles accepted Paul.  His conversion was evident to them, just like Cornelius and the church in Antioch.  The Jewish community, however, hated Paul and considered his conversion as a betrayal.  To save his life, he was sent out of the region to Tarsus (in modern-day Turkey) until tensioned calmed down.

Paul spent years in preparation for the ministry that would eventually come.  It was important for him to have a time of seasoning and training to prepare him for what was to come.   In his letter to the Galatians, he states that he went away to Arabia for three years before he returned to Jerusalem. (Galatians 1:17-18)  In 2 Corinthians, Paul speaks indirectly about “a man” who was caught up into the third heaven where he heard “things which cannot be told, which men may not utter.” (2 Corinthians 12: 2-4)  Many scholars believe he was speaking modestly about himself and time being instructed by Jesus.

Paul’s ministry ended being shaped by four great missionary journeys.    On three of the journeys, he traveled from city to city, preaching the gospel and setting up churches.  The final journey was to Rome, where he awaited a judicial review by Caesar.

The First Missionary Journey

Paul set out with a small team, including Barnabas and John Mark (the author of the gospel of Mark) to travel throughout the Roman Province of Asia Minor (located in modern-day Turkey). 

Paul’s missionary methodology was similar in every town.  He went to the local synagogue for the dispersed Jewish population.  There he exercised his right to speak and used the scriptures to present the truth about Jesus.  Eventually, he would be banned from the synagogue and would shift to the houses of those who believed in what he had taught.  When a house church had been established, he moved on to the next town.

During this journey, Paul aroused such antagonism, that a mob caught up with him and took him outside of the city and stoned him.  Paul’s life was miraculously preserved, and the mob disbanded.  He got up, tended to his injuries, and moved on to the next city.

Over the course of two years, Paul and his team traveled throughout the southern half of the province.    At some point, the pressure got to be too much for John Mark, and he left Paul and Barnabas to return home to Jerusalem.  This abandonment made Paul angry, and he would not forget the abandonment.

When Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch, where a well-established church met and gave a report of the results of their travels.  For the most part, they had great news of the churches that had been planted, and the disciples and leaders celebrated with them.

During this inter-trip gap, a major issue arose in the church regarding the gentile believers.  Some of the leaders wanted to require them to additionally convert to Jewish practices.  This meant circumcision, food purity, and other Jewish legalistic rules.  A council was convened in Jerusalem to consider the matter.

In Acts 15 we read of this council and the debate that they considered.  In the end, it was Peter who summarized the final decision.  Placing the burden of Jewish law on the gentiles, he said, was not realistic, when the Jews themselves could not effectively keep those same laws.  The final decision concluded that gentiles did not have to submit to the Jewish law, but were instructed to flee from the idolatry that the Greek and Roman culture embraced, and to live a pure, moral life.

The Second Missionary Journey

Paul didn’t like sitting around.  After the council in Jerusalem, he approached Barnabas to undertake a second Journey.  Barnabas was willing but wanted to bring John Mark and give him a chance to redeem himself and prove his worth.  Paul adamantly refused to take John Mark with, and so the two missionaries parted ways.  Barnabas traveled with John Mark, and Paul selected a man named Silas to be his new partner.

The second journey was intended to be a return to the churches that Paul had planted on his first trip.   They did travel through the region of Galatia and visited many of the churches where Paul had spent time before.  Along the way, Timothy, a gentile convert, joined the team.

After visiting the Galatian churches, Paul traveled to the Aegean Sea and the city of Troas.  One night Paul had a dream that a man from Macedonia was beckoning him to visit them.  Choosing to follow the guidance of the dream, Paul abandoned his earlier plan to travel north and east and turned west toward Macedonia.

Philippi was his first city and he converted Lydia, the first European believer.  While he was in Philippi, he cast a demon out of a slave girl who told fortunes for money.  This so upset her masters that they had Paul whipped and thrown in prison.  That night an earthquake shook the city and the doors of the prison fell open.  Paul and Silas convinced all of the prisoners to stay, and when the jailer discovered the prison opened, but no one missing, he too believed.

The next day Paul met with the city leaders.  He revealed that his rights as a Roman citizen had been violated, and wondered what Caesar would say if he heard of the way Paul had been treated.  Ashamed for being overwhelmed by emotion and not checking on due process, the city leaders let him go and sent him on his way.

Paul traveled through the cities of Macedonia and Greece.  It is here that we learn of the Bereans, who were nobler than any others because when Paul preached to them, they did not reject him out of hand, but searched the scriptures to see if what he said was true.  We also read of Paul’s visit to Athens, where he debated with the Greek philosophers regarding the identity of an “unknown god.”

During this time, Paul planted churches and met with believers in every city he visited.  Many of his letters, which we will consider in the Epistles, were written to the churches that he planted and nurtured through these missionary journeys.

Paul’s journey ended back in Antioch of Syria where he had begun about two years after it had begun.  Paul rested and started preparing for his next trip.

Paul’s Third Missionary Journey

Once again, Paul headed out to visit and encourage the churches that he had already planted and plant new churches.  He traveled through the region of Galatia again, ending up in the major metropolis of Ephesus on the western coast of Asia Minor.

Paul remained in Ephesus for three years.  He planted a church and spent significant time developing the leaders to oversee such a large church.  In later years, Paul wrote two letters to Timothy, who had become the leader there.

Ephesus boasted a great temple to the Roman god Diana.  Such was the effectiveness of Paul’s ministry in Ephesus, that the number of pilgrims who came to Ephesus to worship Diana declined.  The silversmiths, who made small figurines of Diana noticed a decline in their income, and under the instigation of a smith named Demetrius rioted in the streets, protesting Paul’s influence.

Paul was forced to leave the city after this and returned to Greece and Macedonia where he visited the churches that he had planted in the second journey.  Most likely he spent an extended time in Corinth, another large city with a thriving church that needed strong leadership.

Paul at the Mercy of the Jewish Leaders

The third missionary journey was cut short when Paul learned that some of the Jews were planning to assassinate him.  Such was his reputation for preaching Christ and leading Jews out of the synagogue into the Christian churches, the Jewish leaders needed a solution for him.

Paul returned to Jerusalem to plead his case and explain what he was doing (and undoubtedly to preach Jesus to the leaders).    He knew that he would not prevail and that the Jewish leaders would arrest him and put him in prison.  And this is exactly what happened.

Just like Jesus, Paul was remanded to the Roman governor as the Jewish leaders tried to get someone to condemn him to death.   The Roman governor could find enough evidence to pronounce a guilty verdict.  However, worried that the Jewish leaders would incite a riot, they also did not release him but kept him imprisoned in the city of Caesarea.  Several years later, a second governor failed to condemn him. But fearing the political power of the Jewish leaders, he was ready to remand Paul back to them.

Paul knew that he would not survive back in Jerusalem.  The leaders would find a way for him to have an “accident” that would claim his life.  So he played the only card he had remaining:  he appealed his case to Caesar.  As a Roman citizen, this was his right, and it required him to be sent to Rome.

Paul’s Fourth Missionary Journey to Rome

The Roman Governor assigned a military guard to Paul and sent him by way of sea to Rome.  The journey was long and arduous.  Along the way, they were forced to travel in the winter and shipwrecked.  All along, Paul was convinced that he would make it to Rome and served as an encouragement to the others who began to despair.

For several years, Paul was imprisoned in Rome, waiting for his day before Caesar.  However, it seems that the Jewish leaders failed to appear to present their case.  During this time he wrote letters to the churches that comprise many of the epistles in our Bible.

Ultimately Paul was released from his captivity in Rome.  But Acts ends with Paul preaching to all who would hear him in the Roman capital.  His story is one of the ever-expanding reach of the Church that Jesus promised to build.  Paul encountered great opposition in his missionary work.  However, the power of Jesus through the Holy Spirit was sufficient grace to see him through every trial.

In the book of Acts, we learn the stories of many of the churches to which Paul later wrote letters.  These letters, or epistles, make up an entire section of our Bible.  But that’s getting ahead of the story.

The Acts of the Apostles show us the enormous impact that the life and death of Jesus had on people.  Galilean fishermen became effective orators and preachers.  Jewish persecutors became missionary apostles.   The dynamite power of God through the Holy Spirit continued to break down barriers and produce the work of salvation in the lives of those who heard.

The early church laid down a template for what “church” was supposed to be.  The community of the believers cared for one another and provided for each other when the times became difficult.  We often look back at the “first-century church” through lenses that elevate their worship and community to an ideal that we desire to emulate.

The Apostle Paul laid the framework for thousands of missionaries to come.  His willingness to go where people needed to hear about Jesus has inspired men and women since to leave the comfort of home and set off in danger and trials to deliver the eternity-changing gospel of Jesus.

“How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!”

Romans 10:15

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The Birth of the Church

At the end of the gospels, we leave the resurrected Jesus giving the famous Great Commission to His disciples.  “Go and make disciples.”  He’d spent forty days with them, but the promised Comforter (John 14:16-17) had not come and He had not begun to build His church (Matthew 16:18).

In the book of the Acts of the Apostles, we see the fulfillment of both of these promises.

While the title of this book of the Bible refers to the Apostles, what we see is the power of the Holy Spirit being manifest through them.  The Apostles were the human actors, but the Holy Spirit was delivering God’s plan for His new people.

Pentecost – the Church begins with a BANG!

While Jesus ascended into Heaven from Galilee, He sent His disciples back to Jerusalem to wait.  He didn’t tell them what they were waiting for, or how they would know.  He only told them that God’s promise would be fulfilled and they would receive the Holy Spirit.

I doubt the disciples had much of an idea of what that the Holy Spirit was or what His coming would entail.  But they were faithful and they returned.  And they waited.  Those ten days must have seemed like years, not knowing when they would receive the promise.

Jesus had promised to build His church.  They knew this but didn’t know what it would look like.  The disciples’ only frame of reference was God’s covenant relationship with the nation of Israel.  It makes sense that they would have expected a renewed covenant with Israel, but Jesus had wildly different ideas.

In Acts 1:8 Jesus told the disciples that they would receive POWER when the Holy Spirit came upon them.  The Greek word used there is the same root word from which we get the word dynamite.  It’s not a tame word. 

The Holy Spirit comes with explosive power.  He transforms everything He touches.  He cannot be contained or controlled.  He destroys the old and introduces the new. 

The disciples didn’t understand this yet.  They were in the dark, but the light was coming.

In His great commission (Matthew 28:19020), Jesus laid out the scope of the church He was going to build:

  • Jerusalem
  • Judea
  • Samaria
  • All the rest of the earth

And now He had sent them back to Jerusalem for the beginning of the building project.

The Jewish holiday of Shavuot (Festival of Weeks) was one of the three pilgrimage holidays for the Jewish people.  Falling seven weeks after Passover, it was intended to celebrate the wheat harvest (Exodus 34:22), although it also became associated with the giving of the law on Mt. Sinai. 

Once again, Jerusalem would have been filled to overflowing as Jewish pilgrims descended upon Jerusalem to celebrate and make their offerings of loaves of bread from the harvest.  It is precisely

Into this setting that the Holy Spirit came.

Empowered by the Holy Spirit…

Luke the Physician did not experience Shavuot with the rest of the disciples.  Neither did his traveling companion and ministry partner Paul.  But He did interview those who were there.  Even looking back upon it, it seems that the power of God defied proper description.

First, we learn of a sound.  Luke described it as the sound of a great wind.  But there was no wind, nor was there the damage that would come with such a blast.  It filled the ears of everyone gathered in the room together.  I imagine that it was loud and surprising and scary.

Then came a strange sight.  Luke described it with two metaphors, tongues and fire.  This conveys the image of wavering and flickering.  There was one for everyone in the room and these apparitions appeared to settle on each of them.

Not knowing what was going on, this would have been an unnerving series of events.  But more was to come as the effects became apparent.  They were able to speak in languages they had not formally learned.

Acts 2:5 says that Jerusalem was filled with God-fearing Jewish people from all over the world.  Shavuot would have gathered them all together in the city.  The sound of the rushing wind wasn’t limited to the people in the room.  It drew a crowd, everyone wondering what was happening.

Acts 2:6 says that the disciples went out to them and preached the gospel and the crowd was able to hear the good news each in their native language.  They wondered and marveled at this, remarking that the disciples were common men from Galilee, not sophisticated learned men who would be expected to talk to them.

…Peter preached a great sermon…

Peter, in his typical headstrong way, responded to the astonishment and the side claims that they were drunk, stepped forward to tell everyone what was going on.

Verses 14 through 40 of Acts two convey Peter’s great sermon.  He didn’t go easy on them.  He didn’t apply subtle psychology to convince them of anything.  He didn’t beat about the bush and wait for them to ask questions.  Peter went for the jugular.

He began by explaining what they saw not as drunkenness, but the fulfillment of the prophecy made in the Old Testament (Joel 2:28).  The Spirit of God had come as never before, but now He dwelt among men and women on Earth.

Then, in so many words Peter called them on their sin.  He told them that Jesus of Nazareth had come from God and they had rejected and crucified Him as a common criminal.

This same Jesus God had raised from the dead, and many testified to His resurrection.   And through His power, the penalty of sin had been paid and the power of sin had been broken – but they had to repent and come out from among the number of the guilty and receive it.

We don’t have the entirety of the sermon.  Undoubtedly, Peter went on for a long time.  He had spent years being prepared by Jesus, and suddenly the pieces were falling into place.

…And the results were staggering!

Acts 2:41 says simply that on the day of Shavuot, later named Pentecost by the church, more than three thousand people believed and joined the Church.  This speaks to the POWER of the Holy Spirit. The first time they heard the message, they believed.  It was not a carefully sown seed. 

Just like that, the church was born.  Not only did the people of Jerusalem believe, but so did those pilgrims who had come for the festival.  They then returned home and took with them the message of the gospel that they had heard.  In one move, the gospel had been scattered to the nations.

Faith Spreads to the Gentiles

As the after-effects of Pentecost began to settle upon the now-apostles and the city of Jerusalem, one thing was clear.  Their outreach had been limited to the Jewish population.  Only Jews would have come to the city for the festival.  Peter’s sermon was tailored to a Jewish audience.

So the apostles set about teaching and preaching about Jesus.  But their assumptions were narrowly focused on the Jewish context.  It must have made perfect sense to them that Jesus’ message was to His people.

But Jesus had already been rejected by His people (Matthew 12).  His focus in the latter half of His ministry was on His disciples, not His countrymen.  This limitation existed only in the minds of the Apostles.  Not in Jesus’ plans for His church.

Once again it fell to Peter to open the door of ministry.  While staying in Joppa, outside of Jerusalem on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, he had a strange dream.  In the dream, he was offered a banquet of food, all of which was not permitted under Jewish dietary law. 

Three times the offer was made.  Three times Peter refused, clinging to the old prohibitions.  Finally a voice, as of God, spoke to him.  “What God has made clean, do not call common (unclean).”

When Peter woke from the dream, he probably did not understand what had just happened.  It was a strange dream for sure, but he had no reason to suspect that it was as world-shattering as he would later learn.

Not long after he awoke, Peter was informed that some men had arrived to visit him.  They wanted to take him to meet a man named Cornelius, a Roman centurion and gentile.  Normally a proper Jew would not enter the house of a Gentile.  However, Peter agreed and by the time he arrived, he had figured out the meaning of the vision.  Gentiles were no longer to be considered unclean and avoided.

Cornelius greeted Peter and explained that he, too, had had a dream and that in it he was told to call for Peter to come and reveal a message from God.  Even though he was a Gentile, Cornelius had been following the Jewish faith and believed in God.  Now there was something more for him and he wanted to know what it was.

By now the dream made complete sense to Peter.  He understood that Jesus’ church wasn’t to be a Jewish church, but an international and multi-cultural church.  So he began preaching another sermon, explaining who Jesus was and what He had done.

The Holy Spirit didn’t wait for Peter to finish preaching.  In the middle of his sermon, the Spirit fell upon Cornelius and the members of his household and staff who had gathered to meet Peter.  They began speaking other languages just as the Apostles had at Pentecost. 

Peter’s companions, who had not had the dream, were astonished that the gentile experience and result was the same as the Jewish experience at Pentecost.  They quickly concluded that the Holy Spirit had accepted the gentiles just as He had accepted them.

The Church Grows

Peter had a sales job when he returned to Jerusalem to explain what had happened.  Not everyone was excited by what he had done.  Some accused him of sinning because he had visited a gentile.

Peter had to tell the entire story of his dream and the visitors from Caesarea who had taken him to Cornelius.  When he was done, everyone was speechless.  

When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.” (Acts 11:18)

The matter of Jewish practices (such as circumcision and the keeping of certain Jewish legal practices) still hadn’t been addressed.  But the Holy Spirit was doing amazing and new things.

Not long after, reports from Antioch, a Roman city to the North, arrived in Jerusalem.  The gospel had been preached there and people had believed.  Once again the Spirit had exceeded their expectations and shown them that their understanding of Jesus’ plan to build the church was too small.

The Apostles sent a man named Barnabas to check out these claims.  He traveled to Antioch and verified that it was true.  The gospel was spreading.

Beginning in Jerusalem the church had spread throughout Judea and Samaria and was now entering the “uttermost parts of the Earth.”  Not only that, but the reach of the gospel was more than Jewish. Gentiles had, against all expectations,  responded to the preaching and now were joining the church in ever-growing numbers.

Summary

The book of Acts tells the story of the growth of the church.  The first half of the book focuses heavily on Peter.  As the church began, he was the Apostle who presided over all of the breakthrough events.  From Jerusalem to the Gentiles to the spread beyond Judea, he was the one who acknowledged the work of God breaking down his barriers.

Next, the book of Acts switches to another great Apostle, Paul, who began as the great persecutor of the church.  But we’ll save that for another installment.

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The Gospels – Good News of Jesus

As we journey through the Bible, we finally come to the Gospels.  These are the books of the Bible that deal directly with the life of Jesus.  Stepping back to look at the entire Bible, the Gospels fall into the generic category of “History.”   In this respect, these four books are similar to Genesis, Judges, and 2 Chronicles.  However, because of the criticality of the subject matter (Jesus), we group the Gospels into a special category of their own.

From a timeline perspective, the Gospels follow the Prophetic and Historical books of the Old Testament.  Ezra and Nehemiah concern events of the fifth century BC.  Malachi, the last prophet, received his messages from God in the fourth century BC.  This means that there was a four-hundred-year span where God appeared to go silent. 

This was the longest silent gap since the nation had been founded by God’s covenant with Abraham.  Undoubtedly, there was some angst among the Jewish leaders, trying to understand why God had gone quiet.  Had He forgotten them?  Was He discarding them for someone else?

Into this silence came Jesus of Nazareth.   God chose not to speak through a prophet, priest, or king as He had in the past.  This time He sent His Son

We have four different gospel accounts in our Bible.  They contain a lot of overlap.   But each one was written to a different audience and communicated different aspects of Jesus’ life and ministry.

Three of the Gospels are called the “synoptic gospels.”  These are Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  Synoptic means “same viewpoint” or “same view”.  And as we read in our Bible we can see that these books all follow a similar historical narrative style of telling the story of Jesus.  The gospel of John follows a different literary strategy and stands apart from the others.

Let’s take a brief look at each of these books:

Matthew

Written by Matthew Levi, the former tax collecting disciple of Jesus, this book is aimed at a Jewish audience.   Matthew gives a lot of attention to matters that would have been of interest to his people.   Much of the material in the book is intended to focus on Jesus’ fulfillment of prophecy and His claim to be the Chosen One, the Messiah.

Mark

John Mark was a friend of Peter, and possibly a part of the larger crowd of people who followed Jesus.  During his account of Jesus’ betrayal and arrest, he makes mention of a young man fleeing naked from the scene.  Some Scholars believe that was an autobiographical reference to him.

Mark’s book was targeted at a Roman audience.  To this end, he focuses on the main action.  His account is the shortest of the four gospels and follows a literary style that is much more oriented around the action.  The word “immediately” is used more than forty times in his book – emphasizing events happening one after the other.

Luke

Luke was a Greek physician and companion of Paul the Apostle.  His gospel account was commissioned by a Greek named Theophilus (which roughly translates into Lover of God).  Luke did not witness any of the events first hand but says that he very carefully researched everything he wrote and interviewed the people who were there.  Correspondingly, his account is targeted at a Greek audience.

John

John, the beloved disciple of Jesus wrote a very different account of Jesus’ life.  While his composition is unique, it agrees with and supports the other accounts.  At the end of his book in Chapter 21, John describes his purpose in writing his account.

but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God and that by believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:31)

John’s gospel was written to convince people to believe in Jesus.   He organized his work around seven major miracles, seven major discourses or talks, and seven major “I AM” statements made by Jesus.

A Harmony of the Four Gospels

A common way of studying the gospels is to lay them together to line up similar events and understand what might have happened between them.  Where Mark might jump from one event to another in successive verses, Matthew or Luke might include details Mark omitted.  They might even include events that Mark completely omitted. 

As we build this composite picture of Jesus’ ministry, it helps us see His actions and His message more clearly.  Of course, we have to remember the initial audience for the biblical authors and use that to understand what each said in the context of their purpose.

This process of lining up the gospels is called “harmonizing the gospels”.  This is not forcing a harmony that isn’t naturally present, it’s just working with that harmony to organize the texts in a way to make the harmony more obvious.

What is a Gospel?

The word “gospel” simply means “Good News”.  It could be good news of any kind.  “The ice cream truck is in the neighborhood and is giving out free samples” could be considered good news if you like ice cream and the day is warm.  But in this case, the Good News centers on God sending Jesus to pay the price for our sin and redeem us back to God.

When it comes to scripture, the term Gospel is reserved for the four books who tell the story of Jesus.  Jesus Himself is God’s good news come down to us.  He is the fulfillment of the promise God made back in Genesis 3 telling us that Satan’s power would eventually be broken.  He is the ultimate Passover Lamb, completing the picture that was started in Exodus.  He represents the perfect Prophet who can speak on behalf of God.  He is the perfect Priest, offering the sacrifice that would forgive sins once and for all, not just cover them.  He is the ultimate King, of the line of David, who will one day sit on the throne and rule forever.  He is the author of the New Covenant, replacing the covenant of Law with a covenant of Grace.

All of the Old Testament was looking forward to the coming of Jesus.  Whether the writers or the people they wrote about knew it or not, Jesus was the one who would make everything right with God.  Their faith was a confidence that God would do something someday that would address the issue of sin and make permanent all the temporary cover-ups that they had to do.

For this reason, we call these four books the “Good News.”  For they tell us of the greatest news of all.

A Summary of the Four Gospels

There are many ways that we could summarize the four gospels.  We could attempt to do it culturally or thematically, or based on the subjects of Jesus teaching.  Here I will offer a roughly chronological listing of major events that happened building to the climax of all four of the accounts.

The gospels are all about Jesus.  They can have no other subject, no other main character.  So as we summarize them, we will focus on how we see Jesus in the gospels.

Jesus Role in Creation from Eternity Past

John 1:1-18

Lest we have any doubts about Jesus’ identity, John starts at the beginning of the story.  Even though we’ll get to Jesus’ birth in a bit, John starts much earlier than that.

He was in the beginning with God. (John 1:2)

Jesus existed before His birth in Bethlehem.  John takes us back to Genesis 1:1 and says that Jesus was there with God.  John doesn’t beat around the bush.  In the first verse of his book, he says that Jesus is God.

John goes on to say that Jesus played a role in creation (John 1:3).  Not a minor role or an assisting role, but an essential role.  Without Jesus in the beginning, the world we know would not have come into existence.

As we continue to read through the events of His earthly life, John wants us to remember that Jesus’ story didn’t start in Bethlehem.

Jesus Miraculous Birth

Matthew 1-2, Luke 2

Every Christmas we return to these beloved passages about no room at the inn and babe in a manger.  We love the shepherds and the wise men and the angelic choir singing “Glory to God in the highest.”

Matthew and Luke want us to know that Jesus was not an ordinary baby conceived the ordinary way.  Jesus was born of Mary, but not of Joseph.  He was fully human, but also fully God.  So his conception happened differently. 

Of His childhood, we get very little information.  We know that He understood early on that His purpose and mission was from above and that His Heavenly Father had work for Him to accomplish.  We don’t know when the reality of the cross came to Him.  But He was aware that He had a purpose.

John Baptizes Jesus

Matthew 3, Luke 3

John was Jesus’ second cousin.  Jesus’ mother and John’s mother were cousins.  John came for a special purpose.  Mark identifies John as “one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the paths of the Lord.’”  He had a specific role to announce Jesus and introduce Jesus to the people, as foretold in the prophet Isaiah.

John’s ministry was one of preparation.  He called the people to repentance and baptized them to signify that repentance.  He had no forgiveness to offer, but his job was to make the people aware of their sins and properly sorrowful, so they could receive Jesus as God intended.

When John baptized Jesus, He did not do so to commemorate Jesus’ repentance.  Jesus had committed no sins.  John baptized Jesus to officially announce Him and initiate Jesus’ public ministry.

Jesus’ Temptation

Matthew 4, Luke 4

Straightaway after Jesus was baptized, He went into the wilderness where He spent time fasting and preparing for what was about to happen.  At the end of this period, Satan came to Him and tempted Him with a variety of short-cuts.

The first temptation was simply to deviate from His purpose of being the ultimate sacrifice and use His powers to indulge His hunger.  That would have been a perversion of God’s plan and would have disqualified Him from completing His intention.

Satan’s second attempt was to try to get Jesus to use His divine powers to influence His ministry.  By throwing Himself off the top of the temple and being rescued by angels, Jesus would have impressed the crowd at the Temple.  They would have gladly installed Him as their new King.  But Jesus knew his purpose was to be the suffering sacrifice, not the triumphant King.

The third temptation was couched as a simple trade.  If Jesus gave Satan what he wanted, Satan would give Jesus what He wanted.  Jesus had only to worship Satan and He could skip the whole cross and death and He would be given all of humanity.  But this was not God’s plan and Jesus said no.

In each of these temptations, Jesus used the word of God from the scriptures to rebuke Satan.  He did not give in to the apparent ease of a short cut but relied upon God to know the best way to accomplish what needed to be done.

Jesus Public Ministry

Matthew 4, Luke 4, Mark 1

After resisting Satan’s temptations, Jesus began his public ministry.  This consisted of calling His disciples, walking around to different cities, and preaching to them and performing miracles of healing and exorcism.

Throughout this phase of His ministry, Jesus had one overarching message.  “Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand.”  In this message, He continued John the Baptist’s call to repentance.  Ultimately He wanted a change of heart for the people and that began with acknowledging their sin and turning from it.

The Kingdom of God at hand referred to His presence among them.  He was near, in their midst.  He would be their sacrifice and their ruler.  They simply needed to repent and turn to Him.

Jesus’ Discussion with Nicodemus

John 3

One of the most famous discussions Jesus had was with Nicodemus, a Pharisee, and a member of the Jewish Governing Council.  Nicodemus came to Jesus secretly by night.  He did not want any of his colleagues to know that he had been talking to Jesus.

Nicodemus wanted to know who Jesus was and how He did all the miracles.  He as much as admitted that the Pharisees knew there was something special about Jesus because of the miracles.  But he wanted more.

Jesus steered the conversation in a spiritual direction and began to talk to Nicodemus about being “born again” as the way to see and experience the kingdom of God.  This confused Nicodemus and he tried to puzzle out how he could physically be reborn.

Jesus clarified that it wasn’t a physical birth He was talking about.  It was a spiritual rebirth.  Nicodemus was spiritually dead and if he wanted to see the kingdom of God, he would need to be born into spiritual life.

This discussion gives us perhaps the most famous and well-known verse in the Bible.

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.  (John 3:16)

Jesus Is Rejected by the Jewish Leaders

Matthew 12: 14-37

Throughout His early ministry, Jesus drew the attention of the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem.  When it was clear that something significant was happening, they sent a delegation to observe and see if the stories were true.  When Jesus’ authority over demons and disease became obvious, they began to question Him about what He was doing and where His power came from.

The relationship between Jesus and the Pharisees was tense from the beginning.  He saw how they abused their power and used it for their benefit.  He publically called them “a brood of vipers,” “white-washed tombs,” and “children of the devil.” 

The more Jesus amazed the crowds, the more He put the Pharisees in a tight spot.  The uneducated crowd would expect the Pharisees to decide whether Jesus was the Messiah or not.  If they said “He is,” then their sin and hypocrisy would have been exposed.  If they said “He isn’t,” then the crowd would expect an explanation that accounted for all the miracles.

This tension came to a head in Matthew 12.  Jesus had just cast out a demon.  The crowd was astonished at this, and asked, “Is He the One?”

The Pharisees, who were there and heard this question, offered their answer. 

“This was all a show designed to trick you,” they said.  “He is not the One, the Messiah.  He uses the power of the devil to cast out demons.”

The Pharisees, as the leaders of Israel, had rendered their verdict.  They had decided that He was not the Messiah.  Despite ample miraculous evidence, Jesus did not fit their picture of how the Messiah would act.  Unable to explain His power in any other way, they described His miracles as satanic. 

This must have come as a shock to the people who heard it.  Jesus seemed to be from God, not Satan.  But with this decision, the matter was put to rest.  The Pharisees backed up their shocking announcement with their full authority as the leaders of the people, and no one dared to defy them.

Jesus chastised them and told them that what they had just done was blasphemy against the Spirit of God.  For this sin, there would be no forgiveness offered.  It could not be taken back or undone.

For this reason, John wrote in the introduction to his Gospel:

He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.  (John 1:11)

Jesus Teaches in Parables

Following this encounter with the Pharisees and their rejection of His authority and His power, Jesus changed His ministry approach.  After this point, we no longer hear His usual appeal about repenting because the Kingdom of God was near.  From this point on, Jesus goes out of His way to hide what He was trying to say.

Starting in Matthew 13, Jesus began teaching in parables.  Some might say that parables are folksy tales meant to appeal to a broad audience.  Both the disciples and Jesus disagree with this interpretation.

After telling His first parable, the disciples came to Jesus and asked why He was talking to the people that way.  They had no idea what He was trying to say.

Jesus answered, “To you, it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them [the crowds], it has not been given.” (Matthew 13:11) 

Jesus was speaking in parables to hide His meaning from the people, who would not leave Him alone.  Later, He explained the meaning of the parables privately to His disciples.  His people had rejected Him.  His message was no longer to them.

The parables Jesus taught His disciples (but not the crowds) explained different aspects of the Kingdom of God.  Earlier He had been preaching to the people that the Kingdom was near.  Now He was telling His disciples how to understand what the Kingdom was.

For the rest of the Gospel accounts, we watch Jesus as He worked with His disciples to prepare them for what was to come.  He knew His time would be short and then He would have to leave them.  This was the intensive class in how to believe in Him.

Jesus Introduces the Church

Matthew 16:13-20

After the change of ministry strategy, Jesus took His disciples out into the countryside to the headwaters of the Jordan River (it flows right out of the side of a mountain).  There He asked a really big question.

“Who do people say that I am?”

His disciples repeated back what they had heard in the towns of Galilee.  A teacher.  A prophet.  John the Baptist raised from the dead.

“Who do you say I am?”

In what may have been Peter’s finest moment, he blurted out, “You are the Christ (the Greek word for Messiah), the Son of the living God.”

Jesus affirmed what Peter had said and said that Peter’s confession was a tiny piece (pebble) of a much larger thing (rock).  And upon that rock, Jesus said He would build His church.  Grounded upon this great confession of faith, all the powers of Hell would not prevail against it.

This was the first time that Jesus spoke about something much bigger than the faithful group that had followed him around the Galilean countryside.  Though they probably didn’t understand what He was talking about, that understanding probably came later when the church came into existence.

The Triumphal Entry

Matthew 21:1-11; Mark 11:1-11; Luke 19

Before the third Passover of His public ministry, Jesus headed into Jerusalem.  This decision distressed His disciples tremendously.  The tensions with the Jewish authorities had become so bad they expected that they were all going to their deaths.  Normally they stayed up in Galilee and out of the political limelight.  But Jesus was determined to celebrate the Passover in Jerusalem, regardless of what the consequences might be.

As He approached Jerusalem, word of His arrival spread ahead of Him.  At this time, the capital city was bursting with people who had come to celebrate the Passover.  Only at the temple could their Passover lambs be sacrificed.  So every Jewish family that could afford it had come up to Jerusalem.

The crowd rushed out to see Jesus.  They remembered His miracles and His teachings (and temporarily forgot the decision of their leaders).  With a king who could feed multitudes from a few bits of food, they could overthrow off the Romans and establish a new Jewish kingdom.

So they worshipped Him, crying out “Hosanna!” and paved His path with palm fronds and the cloaks off their backs.  Jesus knew their adoration was misplaced.  They had already rejected Him and would do so again in a matter of days.

Once in Jerusalem, Jesus continued to teach publically in a cat-and-mouse game with the Pharisees and Jewish authorities.  The Pharisees feared If He started doing miracles, the enormous crowds would spontaneously acclaim Him as their King.  The Pharisees wanted to arrest Him and prevent Him from teaching, but the people loved Jesus and He was always surrounded by crowds. 

Jesus Betrayal and Trial

John 18:12-19:16; Luke 22:63-23:25

When the arrest came, it was at night in a secluded garden outside the walls of Jerusalem.  Acting on information received from Judas Iscariot, one of Jesus’ closest disciples, the Jewish leaders brought a squad of soldiers to take Jesus into custody.

The disciples were no match for the soldiers and were quickly sent running.  Jesus submitted to the arrest and resisted no further. 

That night, He was moved from the home of Annas to the house of his son in law Caiaphas and back.  They were sharing the High Priestly duties that year and led the trial, seeking some means to put Him away.  In both locations, Jesus was interrogated and physically assaulted.

The next morning, Jesus was presented to Pilate, the Roman Proconsul of Judea.  He alone had the authority to sentence Jesus to death.  Once again, Jesus went from location to location as Pilate tried to pass the political hot potato to Herod, the Jewish ruler, who was also in town.  Neither leader found cause to sentence Jesus.

At this point, the Pharisees played their trump card.  They told Pilate that if he didn’t do as they demanded, they would tell Caesar that Pilate was supporting a rival king.  Left no political choice, Pilate issued the death sentence.

Jesus Death and Burial

Matt 27:27-66; John 19:17-42

The Romans liked to make a spectacle out of executing people.  So Jesus was marched outside of the city and nailed to the cross.  He’d been flogged and beaten so badly, that he couldn’t make the journey and an onlooker had to be conscripted to carry His cross.

At about three pm, Jesus took on the sin of the world and God turned His back on His Son.  Jesus cried out “My God, why have You forsaken Me?”  At that moment the full weight of sin pressed down on Him.  Having taken our sin, He cried out “It is finished.” Then He died.

Normally a crucifixion would be a multi-day affair as the condemned struggled to hang on to life.  It was part of the horror of the execution that was meant as a deterrent to anyone who would consider opposing the might of Rome.  

Since the next day was a major Jewish holiday and the Jewish leaders didn’t want the dead and dying bodies outside the city while they celebrated the Passover, the Roman soldiers sped up the process so the condemned would die before sundown.  When they came to Jesus they were surprised to discover He was dead. 

The other prisoners were taken down and thrown into a common grave.  But a rich man named Joseph of Arimathea petitioned Pilate for Jesus’ body.  He was a Jewish leader but, like Nicodemus, was a quiet believer in Jesus and wanted to see Him buried properly.  Quickly preparing the body, he laid it in his tomb in a pleasant garden.

The Pharisees, worried that desperate disciples would steal the body from the grave and claim it was a miracle, persuaded Pilate to seal the tomb with his seal of office.  Then he stationed a squad of Roman Legionnaires to stand guard on the tomb to prevent mischief.

Jesus Resurrection

John 20:1-10

But Jesus could not be kept in the grave by a wax seal or any number of soldiers.  On the morning of the third day, the God the Father resurrected Him, the stone was blown away from the grave, and the soldiers were scattered.

The first person to notice was Mary Magdalene.  She was hoping to get access to the body so she could finish the burial preparations that had been cut short.  When she arrived in the garden to talk to the soldiers, she discovered the grave was open and nobody was there.

She ran back to the place where the disciples were hiding out and announced “He is gone!”  Of all the disciples, only Peter and John believed her enough to check out what she had said.  They ran back to the tomb and looked in.  Then they went back to the others and confirmed Mary’s story, but could not explain what had just happened.

Later Jesus appeared to the disciples and told them what had happened.  They were able to talk to Him and verify that it was Him.  Thomas missed the first visit.  He resolutely declared that there was no way he would believe unless he was able to put his fingers in the holes in Jesus’ hands and feet. 

The next time Jesus appeared, Thomas could only croak out “My Lord and my God.”

Jesus Final Commands

Matt 28:19-20; Mark 16:19-20

Jesus remained with the disciples for 40 days after the resurrection.  During this time he met with them more than once and was seen by a large gathering of five hundred people.  These were eyewitnesses who were able to testify to the resurrection that they had seen should anyone wonder if the story was true.

Finally, Jesus announced the time had come for Him to return to the Father.  Back in Galilee, where most of His ministry had occurred, Jesus met with them for the last time.  There He delivered His final instructions:

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20)

This was the end of Jesus’ time on Earth.  His place is in Heaven now, interceding for the saints and building His church.  He will come again.  Next time, however, it will not be to proclaim “The Kingdom of God is near.”  He will come as the conquering ruler.

But that’s a story for another chapter in this great story of the Bible.

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The Prophets – God’s Spokesmen

Following the wisdom books in the middle of our Bibles, we come to one of the largest sections – the Prophets.  This section begins with Isaiah and ends with Malachi.  In all, seventeen books fall into this category.  But these books might not be exactly what you would expect given their title.

In modern times the word prophecy has taken on a different meaning than what it had when these books were written.  Today we think of prophetic works as predicting the future.  That is not at all the objective of this section of our Bible.  True, there are times when predictions are made, but that is not the main purpose.

The prophetic books gained this title because they were written by men who were labeled as “prophets.”    To understand this designation, we need to take a step back and consider the three major offices which God has ordained.

The First Office:  Priest

The purpose of the Priestly office was to make intercession on behalf of the people to God.  They were divinely appointed to serve in the Tabernacle (and later the Temple) and had responsibility for all the offerings that were made there. 

Out of all of the tribes of Israel, God selected the children of Levi to be His special servants. Their job was to stand in between the Children of Israel and God, to submit special requests and offerings for sin.

Then Moses said to Aaron, “Draw near to the altar and offer your sin offering and your burnt offering and make atonement for yourself and the people, and bring the offering of the people and make atonement for them, as the LORD has commanded.” (Leviticus 9:7)

Apart from a priest in the Tabernacle before the altar, no offerings could be made.   1 Samuel 13 tells the story of King Saul choosing to present the offering himself because Samuel, the designated priest, was slow to arrive and make the offering.  When he arrived, Samuel told Saul that he had behaved foolishly and disobediently.  As a result of this action, God had withdrawn His favor, and Saul’s dynasty would end before it was even established.

Once per year, the High Priest had the duty to enter the Holy of Holies and present an atoning sacrifice on behalf of the entire congregation of Israel.  Only the High Priest was permitted to perform this service, and only on this specific day.  Even other priests were forbidden to enter before God in this way.  Two of Aaron’s sons tried this and both were struck dead for violating this rule.

The role of the priest was to represent the people of Israel before God.  Only he could make offerings to cover (but not pay for) their sins.  Only the priest was authorized to operate the Tabernacle and Temple.  Only the High Priest could step into the most holy place and offer the sacrifice of atonement.  There was no other way to approach God, outside of the office of Priest.

The Second Office:  King

The purpose of the King was to rule over and govern the people of God on behalf of God.  When God promised Abram, Isaac, and Jacob that He would be their God and they would be His people, He established a relationship of authority over them.  Throughout the years that followed, God guided them directly (think of the pillars of cloud and fire during the exodus).  When the people needed more direct guidance, God raised up Judges who provided the leadership necessary to resolve a specific problem. 

The Judges were never permanent leaders.  They came as necessary, and often lead for the remainder of their lives.  But the position was not hereditary and often the people rebelled against the children of a Judge (Samuel and Gideon were two good examples).

However, in 1 Samuel 8 we read of the people coming to Samuel and demanding that he give them a King.  This would allow them to more closely follow the practices of the kingdoms around them and create a more visible source of authority and leadership than God, who could not be seen or heard directly.

In 1 Samuel 8:7, God identified this desire as a rejection of His authority.

And the LORD said to Samuel, “Obey the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.”

Later in that same chapter we read that God instructed Samuel to select a King for them.  Even though Samuel did what God instructed, it was God Himself who created the office of King.  God granted divine authority to the King to be the ruler of the people God has chosen for Himself.  The people were not the king’s – they were God’s.   But the king had the responsibility and privilege of governing them on behalf of God.

As we discovered in the session on Long Live the King! most of the kings who ruled failed to rule justly on behalf of God.   All of the kings of Israel were wicked and rejected God.  All but eight of the kings of Judah were also wicked and perverted the authority they had been granted by God.

The Third Office:  Prophet

The final office fell to the people whom God chose to deliver His messages to the people.  In the Old Testament, God did not speak personally and privately to individual people.  He chose a person to be his spokesperson and that person arrived on the scene and said “Thus sayeth the Lord!”

I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. (Deuteronomy 18:18)

Not all of the Prophets wrote books in the Bible.   In the book of Judges, we read of Deborah, who was named as both a Prophet and a Judge (see Chapter 4).  In the book of 2 Samuel we learn of Nathan the Prophet who advised David the King (See Chapter 7).

The Prophet’s responsibility was to repeat in the hearing of the people precisely what they heard from God.  They were not to add their interpretation or opinions to what God wanted them to say.  In Deuteronomy 18, Moses laid down the standards and expectations for a Prophet.

  • If a prophet spoke a word from God, but it did not come from God, the person’s life was forfeit.
  • If a prophet spoke “a word from God,” but it did not come true, the prophet was false.

One aspect of the Prophet was to speak of things that were to come.   But that was not the majority of their communication.  Often the Prophets expressed God’s opinion of what was going on in the world and served as the voice of God’s judgment.

A Look at the Prophets

In our Bibles we have seventeen books in the prophetic section.  Each of these books was written by a man noted as a Prophet and contained God’s direct messages to the people who heard.  These prophets differed from Nathan and Deborah in that their prophetic statements were written down and preserved for us.

Generally the books of the prophets are divided into two sub-sections.

  • The Major Prophets – who wrote the longest of the prophetic books (for example, the book of Isaiah contains 66 chapters)
  • The Minor Prophets – who wrote shorter prophetic books.

The Major/Minor distinction has no bearing on the impact or import of the messages contained in the books, just their length.

Some of the books are a collection of many different prophetic messages.  Isaiah and Jeremiah even indicate that different sections are meant for different audiences.  This makes their books more of a compilation of prophetic utterances over a long period.

By contrast, the book of Jonah tells the story of one episode of Jonah’s life where he was commanded to give a single prophetic message to the city of Nineveh (the capital of the Assyrian empire).  In it we read a retelling of the events leading up to and following the delivery of that message.

Historically, the Prophets spanned a long period.  Many of them lived and ministered during the time of the Kings of Israel and Judah.  In this case they were contemporaries of the stories that we read in the books of Kings and Chronicles. 

Other Prophets were called exilic prophets.  They lived during the time of the Exile in Babylon and their works spoke of God’s sovereignty over the conquering nations and a promise that God would not forget his people.  Daniel is the prime example of a Prophet during the Exile.

Finally some prophets lived during the time after the exile when the Jews had returned to their land and begun to rebuild it.  Malachi is the last of these prophets and wrote around 400 BC, several generations after the first wave of people returned under the leadership of Zerubbabel.

What the Prophets had to Say…

Throughout the books of prophecy we see common themes emerging. God’s message was consistent, and He spoke the same general words whenever the people fell into a common pattern of disobedience.

The Prophets Declared God’s Standards and the Consequence of Ignoring It

As God’s people forgot about Him, they needed frequent reminders of who He was and what He expected.  A common message of the Prophets was to declare God to the people so they would know and change their behavior.

The verses below are designed to be illustrations of the kinds of messages that the Prophets communicated on behalf of God.

Nahum 1:2-8 – The Prophet Nahum spoke to the people of Nineveh (the same ones to which Jonah preached) and painted a picture of God and His anger over the wickedness that He saw in Assyria.  In this passage we see a picture of a righteous God, wrapped in His holiness, meeting out judgment against those who do evil.

Amos 2:2-6 – Amos, a fig-picker by trade, spoke the words of God to the people of Judah and Israel, promising them punishment for their offenses against Him.  He listed their specific transgressions and declared that Judgment was coming.  Israel and Judah were not the only recipients of these prophetic words, the Prophets communicated punishment on many nations – not only the enemies of God’s people.

Hosea 4:1-3 – God reminded the Children of Israel that He was opposed to wicked living.  Verse three begins to describe the consequences which God had rolled out upon them as a result of what He saw in their lifestyles and choices.  Throughout the prophetic literature, we see this picture of sin and punishment again and again.

Joel 2:12-17 – The prophet Joel passionately called out to God’s people to repent, turn their backs on their wicked ways, and return to a life of obedience to God’s law.  While God delivered punishment, His heart was for His people to return to Him and rely upon His protection and power.

Zephaniah 2:1-3 – Zephaniah delivers the message “Repent or suffer judgment.”  Similar to the message of repentance in Joel 2, this passage focused on the judgment that would occur if repentance did not happen.  This was a hard “hellfire and brimstone” demand to the people from a righteous and angry God who could not overlook the offenses against Him.

The Prophetic books deliver in bold language the message of Romans 6:23: The wages of sin is death.  The prophets had to communicate a very stern message to the people around them of God’s displeasure in their choices and their lifestyle. 

In return, many of the prophets were oppressed by the people to whom they communicated.  Tired of hearing such strong language, the people struck back at the messenger, trying to silence the words they did not want to hear.  Being called to the office of Prophet was a great blessing, but it also came with very real consequences and negative effects as well.

The Prophets Declared God’s Faithfulness and Love

Not all of the prophetic messages dealt with sin and punishment.  Often God would remind the Children of Israel of His love and dedication to them.

Hosea 3:1-5 – Throughout the book of Hosea, the Prophet himself plays out the relationship between God and the Children of Israel.  Commanded to marry an unfaithful woman, Hosea represented God, who loved a people who were not faithful to Him.  Yet, again and again, Hosea acted lovingly toward his wife who had turned to prostitution and given herself to many men.  In the same way, God continued to love His people.  He never cast them aside, even though their behavior toward Him was terrible.

Micah 4:1-8 – Micah declared God’s intent to return to Jerusalem and re-establish Zion as His holy seat.  Spoken to a people who were disorganized and scattered and under the power of foreign kings, this would have come across as a great declaration.  It would have been encouraging to know that God had not given up on them as a people and that the great promises God had made to them were not forgotten.

Jeremiah 31:27-33 – A promise to change their hearts and institute a new agreement that would bring God into direct relationship with them – not through the three offices.  Looking at the difficulty of relating to God through the Law, God promised a future change that would result in a softening of their hearts from stone, to flesh.

God neither forgot nor forsook His people.  He loved them even as they rebelled against Him and ran from Him.  His one-sided commitment to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob bound Him to them and nothing they could do (although they tried) could break His affection for them.

The Prophets Declared God’s Plan to Send a Savior

Every year at Christmas, the Prophets come into focus.  Their bold words promising a Messiah in Bethlehem remind us of God’s plan of salvation.

Isaiah 53:1-12 – Against all odds, Isaiah spoke of a suffering servant.  This promise concerns One who would come and receive the judgment of God upon Himself.  We see this as a prophetic foretelling of the life of Jesus who came to live righteously but die a sinner’s death.

Zechariah 14:1-9 – We read of the coming of the Day of the Lord.  This is the day when God comes again in power and might and treads down all who would oppose Him.  This Day of the Lord is the day for which all faithful Children of Israel waited in anticipation.  They longed for their King to be the mighty One who would subdue all oppressors and opponents and return them to their place in His favor.

God did not get lost in the wickedness of His people.  Throughout this time, He remembered His greater plan to bring a Savior and regain the dominion over the earth He created.  At the right times, He shared that message through His prophets and they delivered the news to God’s people. 

The Prophets in Summary

As we come to the section of our Bible that is dominated by the Prophets, we see God’s heart on display.  Sometimes the messages are obscure or difficult to understand.  We aren’t living among the people to whom the messages were first delivered.  But the same kinds of rebellion and wickedness occur in our world today.  It is not a long stretch to take the messages of the Prophets and make them relevant to our world and lives today.

Above all, we see the gospel message loud and clear through the prophets.  God hates sin and calls upon us to repent.  He will send a Savior to make the way to Him accessible to us all.  Then, as His people, He calls us to live righteous and holy lives that honor Him until the day that He establishes His authority and power over all the Earth.

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The Wisdom in the Middle

Up until this point, our journey through the Bible has been somewhat of a chronological narrative.  We started in Genesis with the creation and the fall, then worked generally forward through time as God chose His people and led them, ultimately giving them a king.  

In the last session, we saw that the king thing didn’t work out very well for God’s people.  Despite kingly leadership, more often than not, they were led astray, ultimately resulting in God’s judgment and punishment.

The last of the historical books, Ezra and Nehemiah, finish the historical arc of ancient Israel on a bit of an up-note.  God remembered His people.  He didn’t leave them in captivity in Babylon.  A remnant was preserved and returned to their ancestral homeland around Jerusalem.  They lacked all of their former glory, but they were home.

We’re going to leave this storyline for a while and shift focus.  If you follow through your Bible, the next five books take a new direction.  No longer are they about history, but they introduce a new topic that we will stop to consider.

In the middle of our Bible (by page count), we find the section called “Wisdom Literature.”  It’s a series of books that seem to be misfits.  They don’t follow the narrative pattern that we’ve been enjoying up until this point.  They don’t seem to hang together in the same way that the History books work to tell a single story.

If you didn’t have a biblical background, you might think that this was the dumping ground for all the misfit books.  Any book that didn’t fit in another section was put here because the people that organized the Bible didn’t have anywhere else to put them.

The truth is that these books do have a common theme.  It’s not historical or narrative.  These books are all linked together by a similar idea or topic that they are all considering:

Wisdom.

In today’s culture, wisdom has a meaning and a definition.  We usually think of wisdom as being associated with intelligence or experience.  Perhaps you’ve heard wisdom defined as “knowledge applied”.  That’s not a bad answer.  But it this case, it’s a good answer to a different question.

Most of us think about wisdom as defined by the original rationalists – the Greeks.   Their word for wisdom, Sophos, gives us words today like “sophisticated”.  You can see the idea of intelligence or smarts buried at the root of this word.

When we read about wisdom in the Bible, however, we’re looking at a completely different time and language.  The “wisdom literature” of the Bible is rooted in an ancient Middle Eastern or oriental notion of wisdom.

In that culture, the wise person was one who lived the “good life”.  They were to be emulated by others.  They had done it right and had their priorities and values in correct alignment.  They focused on what mattered and ignored what was temporary or less important.

‘Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom,
and to turn away from evil is understanding.’
Job 28:28

From a biblical perspective, the wise person was one who lived a godly or God-fearing life.  This didn’t mean that they had snappy answers to all of life’s problems and challenges.  But they did know what was important and how to set their priorities.  In return, they experienced the blessings of God.  This didn’t always appear as material blessings.  Even the wise person can suffer.  But the wise person has a proper perspective when hard times come upon them.

The fundamental question being considered through the wisdom section in our Bible is “How can a person live a life that pleases God?”

There are five different books in the section of our Bible that we traditionally call “The Wisdom Literature.”

  • Job
  • Psalms
  • Proverbs
  • Ecclesiastes
  • Song of Solomon

Each of these books has a different perspective on wisdom and gives us unique lessons on what the “good life” looks like.

Job – A Perspective on Suffering

Job was a god-fearing man who lived at some time in antiquity.  The Bible describes him as blameless and upright.  Not only did he fear God, but he actively turned away from evil.  So attuned was he to the fear of God, every time his kids threw a party, he would offer sacrifices on their behalf lest they, in a fit of revelry, should say or do something unrighteous.

Satan Challenges; God Accepts

Very early in the book of Job, we read of Satan visiting God in heaven.  When God remarked about His servant Job, Satan countered to say that Job only loved God because of the material favor God had poured out on him. 

So God permitted Satan to persecute Job, all the way up to (but not including) taking his life.   The wager was that when the blessings were removed, Job would stop loving God.  Satan left heaven ready to unleash a world of suffering on Job that would crush his spirit and turn him against God.

The first round of suffering focused on the things Satan thought Job would hold dear.  First were his children, then his vast estates and herds of livestock.  In one fell swoop, Satan ripped them away from Job.

Job’s response to this calamity was to fall and worship God.  He did not accuse God of wrongdoing.  In essence, he said “if I enjoyed what God gave me, then I have no reason to complain when He takes it away.

Satan doubled down by taking Job’s health.   Beset by pain, Job sat around and tried to care for himself, treating boils and plague-like symptoms.   Even with this turn of events, Job would not accuse God of anything wrong.

Job’s wife was not so patient.  Having watched as everything was taken from them, she had a very different reaction.  Astutely she understood that this was a spiritual attack.  Yet she did not have the right perspective on it.  Her advice to Job was “Curse God and let Him kill you and be done with it.”

Job rejected her advice, clung to his faith in God, and simply waited.

Bad Advice and Discussions with Friends

Such was the fall of a prominent man in the community that Job’s friends soon came to commiserate with him and offer him advice.  Three, in particular, are described in the Book of Job.  They came as friends, and sat with Job for a week, offering no judgments or advice.

Finally, when they could take it no longer, they shared their advice.  In a word, it was all bad advice.  They did not show wisdom.  From a human standpoint, it all sounded good.  It was just wrong.

The dialog between Job and his friends begins in chapter 2 and continues for most of the book.  It consists of a formal process where each friend makes case for Job’s guilt and identifies his circumstances as God’s just punishment for that sin.

Job answers each of his friends and challenges their advice.  Throughout his answers, he consistently claims that he is blameless before God and that God is allowed to bring whatever circumstance He wants into Job’s life.

Job did not know of God’s arrangement with Satan.  His friends could only look at the circumstances and apply worldly logic to figure out what was going on.  Job said he didn’t understand, but that he was blameless in the outcome.  His friends continued to challenge him to admit his guilt and repent so that God’s mercy and grace would continue.

Job Clings to His Redeemer

In the middle of this dialog – an argument with his friends, Job lays out his core belief that God’s justice will be finally served.

“Oh that my words were written!
Oh that they were inscribed in a book!
 Oh that with an iron pen and lead
they were engraved in the rock forever!
 For I know that my Redeemer lives,
and at the last he will stand upon the earth.
And after my skin has been thus destroyed,
yet in my flesh I shall see God,
 whom I shall see for myself,
and my eyes shall behold, and not another.
My heart faints within me!
Job 19:23-27

In this great proclamation of faith in God, Job laid out his belief, that even if he were to die from his circumstance, he would still stand before his Redeemer.  Job understood that this was all about God and not at all about him.  God’s holiness and justice would be preserved and Job’s present condition would not cause any shadow upon God’s character.

God Enters the Discussion

Finally, in chapter 38, God entered the discussion and spoke to Job.   In essence, God asked Job, “Can you do my job?”  He then proceeds to outline the requirements of God’s care for the entire world.

Job chapters 38 – 40 is a tour de force presentation of God’s power, told from the perspective of God Himself.  He challenges our traditional western scientific understanding with a more stylized set of requirements (do you know how many raindrops I have in the entire inventory of heaven?).  God’s monolog through these three chapters expresses majesty and power that doesn’t fit in our human existence.

If you want to change your view of God, stop for a moment, and read these three chapters.  God is rebuking Job for his presumption of arguing on behalf of God.  Job’s knowledge of God, His power, His plans, and His motivations is so pathetic, that it was an act of great presumption to tell his friends what God was trying to do or accomplish.

Only God is capable of containing the whole of His plan.  God does not need us to speak on his behalf or defend Him.  He is capable of caring for Himself. 

Job’s Repentance and Restoration

Upon hearing God’s rebuke, Job immediately repented. 

Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me, which I did not know
Job 42:3

He knew that he had spoken out of turn and was guilty of presumption.  His final response was “Going forward, I’ll ask questions, but let You answer them.”

Throughout this time of suffering, Job’s only sin was presuming to speak for God – something of which he had no real knowledge.  At no time did he accuse God of being unfair to him.  Nor did his faith and focus on God waver throughout the ordeal.

In the end, he learned that faith does not necessarily result in knowledge.  And that it is better to hold as faith that which cannot be known, instead of manufacturing knowledge that was beyond him.

Satan lost the wager.  Job did not turn against God.

God’s response was to restore Job to the position of material success.  His wealth was returned and he was given a new family.

In Job, we see the great lesson that our place is to submit to the great and awesome God.  We cannot explain Him away.  We cannot put Him in a box where we think we have Him figured out.  Our job is to accept what He brings into our lives and be thankful for any circumstance.

Psalms – The Heart Relates to God through Music

The Psalms have been called the hymnal of the Hebrews.  The book in our Bible contains 150 songs that were sung in worship to God.  It seems reasonable to expect that they were compositions that were sung by choirs in the majestic Temple that Solomon built. 

The Psalms give voice to a wide range of emotions and the circumstances behind them.  Often we like to sing songs of God’s goodness.  But the Psalms are honest in that they faithfully express our hearts in all different times of our life.

  • Laments or petitions for God to intervene (Psalm 3, 51)
  • Thanksgiving or praise to God (Psalm 30, 65)
  • Trust in God (Psalm 4)
  • Hymns – Songs about God and His glory (Psalm 47)
  • Teaching and wisdom  (Psalm 1, 119)

The book of Psalms is a composition from many different composers.  While David was called the sweet psalmist of Israel (2 Samuel 23:1), he did not write all of the Psalms that we have today.  Throughout the book, we see the poetic expression that is attributed to many different artists.

The fact that a songbook is included in our Bible gives meaning to the command “Make a joyful noise to the Lord ”.   Music has always been a part of the worship of God.  And with the inclusion of a book of songs, we are confirmed that God values our songs as expressions of our worship to Him.

The Psalms offer redemption for our bleakest days, knowing that we are not alone and that there is a way to share hard times with God.  As the psalmists poured out their hearts in the middle of their most difficult times, so too can we reach out to God when our perspective seems dark and unforgiving.

  • David wrote Psalm 3 as he ran from Absalom who usurped his throne.
  • David also wrote Psalm 51 as he repented of his sin with Bathsheba and the death of their son.

The Psalms guide us toward wisdom as they direct our emotions toward God.  They show that no topic or subject is beneath God’s concern.  Any trial we are experiencing can be poured out to God. 

The wise person, who truly fears God, is so oriented toward Him that when trouble or rejoicing comes into their life, their automatic and natural response is to turn to God and share what is happening.  There is no sense of “I have to work it out first.”   Our frustration and our joy are equally welcome in the psalmist’s expression.

The Psalms teach us that we should set our affections upon God.  This isn’t because we’ll get something back in return.  Often the cry for relief is met with the answer that justice will eventually happen, but maybe not in our lives.  We share with God because ultimately He is in control.  When we remember that we are crying out to the Maker of the universe, we can finally rest in His decision and His promise to deliver justice without fail. 

We may not get the closure we desire.  But we rest in the knowledge that God is God and that He is good.

Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good!
Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!
Psalm 34:8

Proverbs – Wisdom Nuggets

The book of Proverbs is attributed to Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived.  When he ascended to the throne of Israel, God asked him what he most wanted.  Solomon chose to ask for wisdom to be able to govern God’s great people.

So God granted him wisdom to be the wisest man who lived.  Much of that wisdom is distilled into little bite-sized nuggets in the Proverbs.

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom,
and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.
Proverbs 9:10

From his unique position of insight into how to live in a way that pleases God, Solomon shares little nuggets of wisdom in pithy phrases.   The book of Proverbs doesn’t’ tell a story, but if we see life through the lens of the wisdom that is shared, we begin to understand how the story of our lives should be lived.

The Proverbs always draw us back to God.  Just as the fear of God is the beginning, our challenge is to keep that fear and awe and respect central in our lives.  As soon as we shift our focus away from God, we leave the path of wisdom and begin living under our power and insight.  Since we neither create nor design anything of significance, our wisdom, living a life that pleases us, is guaranteed to end badly.

The Book of Proverbs has 31 chapters.  It is a common devotional strategy to read one chapter of Proverbs each day, according to the number of the day of the month.  This would cause us to look upon wise advice every day, with the prayer that we would find the wisdom to apply to our lives every day.

If you are looking for a way to cultivate wisdom, try this for a month.  Don’t wait for a new month.  You can begin today by reading the chapter of Proverbs that matches today’s date.  It’s a gift of wisdom that cannot be overlooked in putting our feet on the right path in our life.

Ecclesiastes – the Meaning of Life

The book of Ecclesiastes was also written by Solomon.  It’s like gaining insight into his journal as he explored life.  He was fabulously wealthy and powerful.  He could do whatever he wanted.  So he tested and explored the boundaries of meaning.

Throughout the book Solomon repeated the phrase “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity!”  The word Vanity occurs repeatedly.  We might think of it as “being vain and puffed up.”  The meaning is the opposite.  When he says ‘vanity’, Solomon is talking about something insignificant or insubstantial.  It lacks the significance of being worthy of discussion.

The book of Ecclesiastes hinges around the conclusion that Solomon expresses in chapter 12.

The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.
Ecclesiastes 12: 13

In the final analysis, none of the subjects that Solomon explored amounted to enough substance to be worth recommending.  The only thing that Solomon concludes to be worth chasing is to “fear God and keep His commandments.” 

Throughout the book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon shares how he explored every possible diversion under the sun.  Every time he thought he found a meaningful good time, he eventually had to conclude that it was vanity – insignificant, not able to bring meaning or purpose to life.

If we read all but the last few verses of the book of Ecclesiastes, we might be tempted to consider it a nihilistic book, one that finds no purpose or value in any endeavor.  Instead, as we consider the whole of it we see that without God, life has no meaningful purpose.  Only in God do we find the value that transcends our existence.

Therefore, Solomon concludes, the duty of all humanity is to pursue God.  Sadly from our time in the histories, we learn that even Solomon in all his wisdom was unable to follow his advice.  In his later days, he turned from God to idols, influenced by his many foreign wives.  But his failure to follow his advice does not decrease the wisdom of the advice.  Quite the contrary, it emphasizes the urgency of this advice of wisdom.

If we want to end our lives well, then we will follow the wise advice of fearing and obeying God to the end of our days.    This is the sign of a life well-lived.

Song of Solomon – Courtship, and Love in Relationship

On the heels of Solomon failing to heed his wisdom, distracted and diverted by his wives, we read the Song of Solomon.  In this book, Solomon shares his earlier, wise thoughts, on relationships and how to conduct them well.

Ever since Genesis 2, God’s declaration that we were created for relationships drives us together.  While it is possible to live outside of marriage, the common expression of desire is for a life shared with others.

Song of Solomon paints a picture of love expressed between a man and a woman, told through the voice of the woman.  It places a high value on the love and romantic longing between men and women that leads to marriage.  Just as God sanctified marriage in Genesis 2, Song of Solomon gives expression to the emotions that lead to marriage.

Final Thoughts

I hope now you see these five books nestled in the middle of your Bible as more than “the collection of misfits that don’t belong anywhere else.”  Today more than ever we need to be reminded of the divine definition of “the Good Life.”

Our culture tries to offer counterfeit pictures of what a good life looks like.   These range from overtly hedonistic, “get what you can and enjoy it for all it’s worth”, to moralistic “follow the golden rule” to the idealistic “just love everyone.” 

But none of the world’s definitions of “good life” include God.  Nor do these ideals present the idea that our life is to revolve around anyone besides ourselves.

In the wisdom literature, we see that a life oriented toward God is the only Good Life we can pursue.  Anything oriented around ourselves leads to vanity and futility and insignificance.  At the same time, we gain a perspective of God as greater than ourselves and not something that can be placed in any box we desire.  Our faith in Him is just that – Faith in Him.  We cannot substitute that faith for knowledge, or it ceases to be faith.

God must capture and hold our attention.  Whether we are debating with skeptics or expressing our frustration at the proliferation of evil in the world, we are oriented to God.  He gets to decide what happens and what does not.  His sense of justice is enough for us.  We accept Him and trust in Him.

For us today who have seen Jesus and the picture of God, we have a double assurance of wisdom.  Jesus did not fight for what was rightfully His.  He did not receive full vindication in the moment of injustice.  He suffered and afflicted in a way that we as mere humans cannot possibly understand.  Yet He went through with it and kept His focus on God, faithfully remaining obedient to God’s plan.

We’ve seen what it looks like.  As we read the Wisdom in the Middle, we should remember Jesus and the example He has already given us.

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Give Us A King!

The children of Israel, God’s chosen people, couldn’t seem to figure it out.  God had brought them out of Egypt and sustained them in the wilderness then brought them into the Promised Land – a land “flowing with milk and honey.”  But they couldn’t seem to follow God.

The book of Judges covers approximately 400 years.  Again and again, the people fell away from God and He brought punishment in the form of powerful neighbors who conquered them, stole their goods, and generally ran roughshod over them.  When life seemed darkest, God then raised a Judge to lead them out of captivity and restore them to peace and prosperity.

This brings us to the next section of the Bible:  1 & 2 Samuel, 1&2 Kings, and 1 & 2 Chronicles.  These historical books describe the Kingdom period of the nation of Israel.    It lasted about  460 years and saw a new development in the civic life of Israel:  transformation into a kingdom under the rule of a human king.

1 Samuel introduces us to the last judge of Israel:  Samuel.  The first few chapters set the stage of how Samuel was selected by God from the service of the tabernacle under the leadership of an ineffective and corrupt priest named Eli.  Soon Samuel was the leading spokesman for God, a man who judged the nation and served as a focal point for all things governance and religion.

Give Us  A King!

The trouble seemed to start when Samuel got old and tied to pass the mantle of Judge to his sons, who were not godly men like him.  The people of Israel sent their tribal leaders to Samuel with an ultimatum:  Give us a king like the other nations!

Samuel knew this was not going to turn out well.  Not only was it a repudiation of his leadership and his parenting, but it was also going to open the door for all sorts of other problems that the Israelites hadn’t experienced to this point.

God knew this wasn’t the issue.  The problem was much deeper.  In 1 Samuel 8:7-9 God instructed Samuel:  “Obey the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. According to all the deeds that they have done, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt even to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are also doing to you. Now then, obey their voice; only you shall solemnly warn them and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.”

Samuel obeyed God and read the people the riot act about living under the rule of a king:

  • The king will take your sons and make an army
  • He will conscript you into service for his pleasure
  • He will take your daughters to work in his palace as servants and cooks
  • He will tax 10% of your income to fund his administration and pay for all the officers he employs
  • Ultimately you will become his slaves

This didn’t bother the Israelites and they renewed their demand for a king.  God told Samuel to do what they requested and grudgingly he followed God’s command.

King Saul I – The First King Of Israel

Even though the people asked for a King, God was still the one to make the decision.  When Samuel had sent them away after agreeing to their demands, God chose the man who would be anointed as king.

Saul, son of Kish of the tribe of Benjamin, was an obscure man.  His family was insignificant in the tribal structure, and the tribe of Benjamin was one of the smallest of all the tribes.  But he was tall and handsome. 

Saul made a dashing king.  His family was wealthy, so he had been treated well as he grew up.  Now he was a full head taller than all the men of Israel.  His size alone made him look kingly.  But his face and hair were attractive too.  Essentially he was a picture-perfect king.

God arranged for Saul to meet Samuel while out searching for some lost donkeys.  Secretly, Samuel honored him and anointed Saul’s head with oil.  Samuel told Saul a series of amazing and specific things that were going to happen on the way back home to his father’s house.  They happened just as Samuel had prophesied – evidence to Saul that God had chosen him to be the king over all Israel.

Later, Samuel called all the tribes of Israel together for the official Kingmaking ceremony.  They drew lots, probably using the Priestly Urim and Thummim, to narrow the choice down by tribe, then family, finally down to the person.

The lots chose Saul, son of Kish, the tall, handsome specimen of a young man.  Unfortunately, he wasn’t around to receive homage from the assembled leaders.  Afraid of what was going to happen, he had run off to the baggage train and was hiding. 

When Saul had been found and stood before them, head and shoulders taller than anyone present, the people cried out “Long live the king!”

When everyone left to go home, certain men of valor stayed behind to form Saul’s bodyguard, Even though God had spoken about who would be chosen, some of the people were unhappy about the choice of such an obscure man to be king. 

A couple of years into his reign, Saul had behaved exactly as Samuel had foretold.  He had assembled an army of three thousand men.  They were in the southwest of Israel, dealing with a rising threat from the cities of the Philistines.  The Philistines mustered an army more than ten times the size of Saul’s and rode out to meet him.

Saul knew he was in deep trouble, so he called for Samuel to come to him and intercede with God for Israel.  Samuel replied that he would come in seven days.  So Saul waited, and when the seven days had passed, worried that the Philistine army would attack soon and seeing that his army was starting to scatter, Saul himself offered a sacrifice to God asking for a favor before the Philistines.

Just as Saul finished the offering, Samuel arrived.  Samuel was furious that Saul had overstepped his bounds and disobeyed God, for only a priest could offer the sacrifice.  When he confronted Saul, the king could only offer excuses that the people were deserting and if he hadn’t, his entire army would have been lost.

Samuel replied, “You have done foolishly. You have not kept the command of the LORD your God, with which he commanded you. For then the LORD would have established your kingdom over Israel forever. But now your kingdom shall not continue. The LORD has sought out a man after his own heart, and the LORD has commanded him to be prince over his people because you have not kept what the LORD commanded you.” (1 Samuel 13:13,14)

Just like that, Saul disobeyed God, and Samuel told him that his dynasty had ended before it even began. God was going to choose another man to be king next, a man who loved God and who would obey Him.

This was not Saul’s only act of disobedience.  Later, when he was instructed by God, through Samuel, to attack and utterly destroy the Canaanite tribe of the Amalekites, Saul chose to defeat them militarily but leave loaded with plunder.  This directly defied the instructions he had been given.

When Samuel met with him after the victory, Saul tried to excuse his behavior saying he intended to offer all the livestock as a sacrifice to God.  Samuel famously replied:

“Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices,
as in obeying the voice of the LORD?
Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice,
and to listen than the fat of rams.
For rebellion is as the sin of divination,
and presumption is as iniquity and idolatry.
Because you have rejected the word of the LORD,
he has also rejected you from being king.”

Obedience matters.  Saul did not obey and the consequences were a loss of the favor of God over his kingship.

Throughout the entire life of Saul, we see the Bible teaching that obedience is king.  Saul serves as a life-sized object lesson about how God views disobedience and rebellion.  Just as He dispensed justice on Adam in the Garden of Eden, God also brought justice upon Saul, the king He had chosen.

This same lesson applies to people of all times and locations.  We who have all disobeyed and rebelled, no matter how we attempt to justify or explain, we fall on the wrong side of God’s justice.  Disobedience demands consequences and those consequences have to be satisfied.

This becomes yet another glimpse into the Bad News that sets up the Good News that we find later in the Bible.  The story of Saul reminds us that sin has consequences and God will not look away.  It creates a building pressure as the Biblical narrative continues – how will this problem be solved?

King David – A Man After God’s Heart

After God rejected Saul as king, he sent Samuel to anoint the next king.  Samuel was sent to the home of Jesse of Bethlehem, in the tribe of Judah.  While Samuel was there, he was introduced to seven of Jesse’s sons.  They were all strong and handsome, excellent candidates to be the next king. 

Samuel, however, knew that God had not selected any of them.  So he asked if there were any other children.  Jesse responded that there was David, but he had been left in the fields to watch the flocks.  David was still young and not yet considered a man, was not suitable to be introduced to the great Prophet.  Samuel said he wouldn’t eat the prepared meal until David had been presented to him.

When David was finally brought to him, God told Samuel that this was the man who would be King.  So Samuel uncorked his horn of oil and anointed David on the spot, in front of his older brothers and father.  At that moment, the Spirit of God rushed upon David and remained with him from then on.

Saul was still king, so David went back to his sheep.  His family managed to shrug off what they had seen and returned to life as normal.  It wasn’t until the incident with Goliath when his brothers had been conscripted into Saul’s army, that David was thrust onto the national scene. 

After Goliath, Saul invited David into his household as one of his servants.  David got a front-row seat to see how Saul operated as a king.  But as God’s favor was withdrawn from Saul and increasingly evident on David, Saul turned on David.  Eventually, David was driven out of Saul’s court and became a man on the run.

Once, as Saul returned from battling the Philistines, he went into a cave to relieve himself.  David and his band of outlaws were hiding in the back of the cave when the king entered alone.  David’s men urged him to kill Saul and become king himself, fulfilling his destiny.  David refused, saying:

“The LORD forbid that I should do this thing to my lord, the LORD’s anointed, to put out my hand against him, seeing he is the LORD’s anointed.”

David trusted God to bring him to the throne in good time, and by means that did not involve murder and regicide.  He restrained himself and his men and let Saul leave the cave.

When David told Saul what he had done, Saul replied: “And now, behold, I know that you shall surely be king and that the kingdom of Israel shall be established in your hand.”

And this is what happened.  When Saul died, David was made king in Judah, and later in all of Israel.  God brought him to power without him murdering the king. 

David’s hands, however, were bloody.  Most of his forty years as king were spent at war.  Because of his warrior activities, the borders of the kingdom of Israel were established and secured.  But despite his dangerous activities, David’s deepest desire was to build a proper house for God.  Up through his reign, the Ark of the Covenant had been housed in tents that moved around. David desired to build a proper temple in Jerusalem where God’s presence could be properly honored with a beautiful building.

God responded:

“Thus says the LORD of hosts, I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep, that you should be prince over my people Israel.  And I have been with you wherever you went and have cut off all your enemies from before you. And I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth.  And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may dwell in their place and be disturbed no more.  And I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover, the LORD declares to you that the LORD will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom.  He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.  And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever.”

God promised that He would get a house, but that David would not build it.  David’s son would be the one to do that.  But David’s family would be a dynasty that would be established forever.  His line would not be cut off as had Saul’s because David’s heart was different than Saul’s.

David did not live a perfect life.  He committed adultery with Bathsheba, the wife of one of his military commanders, then ordered the murder of her husband when she became pregnant.  When confronted with his sin, David immediately repented.  He did not offer excuses or try to explain his actions

David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the LORD.” And Nathan said to David, “The LORD also has put away your sin; you shall not die.  Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the LORD, the child who is born to you shall die.” (2 Samuel 11:13-14)

Through this dark episode of David’s life, we see again the consequences of sin.  But we also see the proper way to deal with sin. David confessed and repented.  He acknowledged what he did was offensive to God.  And God accepted this repentance and offered forgiveness.

This is the kind of king God desired.  One who would obey Him and follow His commandments.  God knew the Bathsheba episode would happen when He promised to establish David’s dynasty as an eternal line of kings.  Yet God also knew David’s heart and that David loved Him and would respond appropriately to His sin.

The Kingdom Divided

When David died, rule passed to his son Solomon.  Solomon enjoyed peace throughout his life, in part because of the conquests of his father. 

In a dream, God offered Solomon anything he wanted.  Rather than choosing riches or fame, Solomon asked for wisdom to rule God’s people.  Satisfied with this answer, God gave him long life, riches, and fame in addition to wisdom. 

Solomon’s stature in the world was enormous.  He was known across the Middle Eastern world as the richest and wisest man who had ever lived.\

But when Solomon died, his son Rehoboam inherited the throne.  Upon his coronation, the people asked him what kind of a king he wanted to be.  His father had taxed the nation heavily to build up his fame, and they were hoping for a reprieve.

Rehoboam, however, lacked all of his father’s wisdom.  He listened to bad advice and finally answered the people foolishly.  He promised to wield an even heavier hand than his father had.

Upon hearing this, ten of the tribes, all in the north of the kingdom, decided they no longer wanted to be ruled by the house of David.  They returned home and rejected all authority from Rehoboam in Jerusalem.

The northern ten tribes chose Jeroboam, son of Nebat to rule over them.   He was a very capable man who had had been in charge of all Solomon’s forced labor gangs.  As Solomon disobeyed God in his old age, God promised to take 10 tribes from the house of Solomon and give them to Jeroboam.   When Solomon found out Jeroboam had fled to Egypt.  Now that Solomon was gone, he returned to claim the promise God had given him.

This created a new political system for the children of Israel.  Ten of the tribes split off from David’s dynasty and followed a new king.  The remaining two tribes, Judah and Benjamin, continued to be ruled by David’s descendants.  The two kingdoms were known as Israel in the north and Judah in the south.

God made the same offer to Jeroboam that He had made to David:  Follow Me and I’ll bless you.  Disobey Me and I’ll remove you from the throne.

The entire history of the northern kingdom of Israel was characterized by kings who rejected and disobeyed God.  Throughout nineteen different kings, not a single one of them honored or obeyed God.  They led Israel astray and worshipped false gods.

Ultimately, God’s punishment came.  The kingdom of Assyria, a world power at the time, conquered the northern ten tribes and deported the people to live far away.  In return, they brought in foreign people and settled them in the territory that had once belonged to the Kingdom of Israel. 

In the kingdom of Judah, however, a different situation occurred.  Twenty generations of the house of David and Solomon reigned in unbroken succession.  While most of the kings were wicked, eight followed after God.

Because of the faithfulness of these eight kings, God extended the time of the kingdom of Judah 130 years longer than that of the Kingdom of Israel.  They survived the attack of the kingdom of Assyria and escaped by paying tribute.  However, punishment eventually caught up to them, and they were conquered by the kingdom of Babylon in 586 BC.

What We Should Take Away

The books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles detail the times of the Kings.  Samuel (once a single book but divided into two in our English Bibles) focuses on the lives of Saul and David.  Initially begun by Samuel, the books were completed by another scribe since they include Samuel’s death.  They give us an intimate insight into the lives of the first two kings and God’s perspective on how His people should be ruled.

God was very clear to Samuel that He was the ultimate ruler of His people.  However, He delegated that ruling authority into specific kings to administer in His stead.  Just as with Adam, that delegated authority went awry, demonstrating that sinful human beings would not obediently follow God regardless of the circumstances of their lives.

 Kings and Chronicles are parallel accounts of the kings of Israel.  The book of Kings begins with the life of Solomon and seems to continue the narrative begun by the books of Samuel.  The book of Chronicles begins with genealogies, including the genealogies of the exiles who returned from Babylon.   It seems that it was written later, and was based on the recollection of the exiles of who they were as God’s people. It was a reminder of the benefits of following God and the consequences of disobeying Him.

Collectively these six books in our Bible chronicle the failure of human rulers to provide the kind of Godly leadership that satisfies God.  Even those rulers who followed God were flawed and suffered the consequences of sin.  But the vast majority of the leaders, despite the miracles God had done in their past, turned their backs on God.

The overarching lesson of these six books is to confirm in us the need for a king who will not lead us into destruction.  Human leaders are incapable of the leadership we need in our pursuit of a way back to God.  Even though God was able to hand-pick the people He wanted, they still failed.

As we chart the trajectory of our Bibles, the crisis is becoming increasingly dire.  In Genesis chapter two, sin entered the world.  Yet after all these events, humanity is no closer to a solution for the problem of sin than they were when the first sin happened.

But God’s plan is developing.  He has chosen His people and has been fulfilling His promises to them.  He put leaders in place, but those leaders sent them astray, directly into punishment at the hands of foreign armies.

But the books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell the story of God remembering His promises.  The people of the kingdom of Judah, formerly ruled by the descendants of David and Solomon, were granted the right to return to their homeland.  It was a hard journey, but they rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem and constructed a new Temple where they could worship God again.

Punishment had been delivered, but it was not the end.  God was gathering His people again, to continue the story of the Bible.

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God Chooses Leaders

Congratulations, we’ve finally finished reviewing the first of 66 books!  At this rate, it’s going to take 200 installments to understand the Bible.  Fortunately, we’re going to pick up the pace.  A lot.  In this session, we’ll consider a total of six books of the Bible.

To date, we’ve been introduced to the three main characters (or their representatives).  We’ve seen the main conflict take shape, and we’ve seen God’s initial response. 

Very early on God created everything out of nothing, and declared that it was good, perfect, without flaw, exactly what He intended.  Special out of this creation was Adam, the first human being, whom God created in His image and gave special capabilities and a special role.  Adam was to be the on-site manager for the earth.  He was to care for it and administer it.  We also met the serpent in the garden.  The serpent was utterly opposed to God and tricked Eve into breaking God’s commandment.  When she invited Adam to follow her in sin, He chose her way rather than God’s way and aligned himself with the serpent.

So how would God respond to the alienation of His prize creation?  How would He regain the relationship He had with humanity?  Was the world utterly ruined forever?

No, God set about choosing a people to be his.  He chose Abram and called him to a special land where God made a one-sided covenant with him.  This selection was bound around 4 main promises:

  1. Out of Abram would come a large nation.
  2. God would give Abram the land on which he lived as a possession.
  3. God would take these people and be their God.
  4. Through them, the entire earth would be blessed.

For three generations, God made this promise to the heir of the family:  Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  At the end of the last session, God miraculously provided for His people by sending Joseph to Egypt to prepare for the famine, then sending the rest of his family to live in comfort there.

Only one problem remained.

God’s people were stuck in Egypt, far from the land God had promised them.  And the Pharaoh, the King of Egypt, didn’t want to let them go.  Something had to give.

Times like this called for strong leadership.  And that’s the theme of this session.  God chose leaders for His people.  Without leaders, the Israelites would have remained stuck in Egypt.  God, in His goodness, was going to work through human leaders to lead them out of Egypt, into the Promised Land, and then to defend that land from their enemies who wanted to take it.

We will be looking at three examples of the leaders God ordained in Exodus, Joshua, and Judges.

Part 1:  Out of Captivity

We first meet Moses in Exodus 2.  Perhaps he is most famous for the story of the basket in the reeds.  It was the desperate attempt of a mother who loved him to save him.  Pharaoh’s royal decree had mandated population control of the most extreme kind.  The net result was that he was functionally adopted into the Pharaoh’s family and raised as a prince of Egypt.

But Moses was deeply flawed.  Exodus 2:11-12 briefly tells the story of how he murdered an Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew slave; one of his people.  Not a lot of words are spent on it, but it paints a picture of a man with a hot temper, who thought he was above the law.

This one action ruined Moses’ life of luxury.  We might have thought that he was on the path to be able to do great things to aid his people.  Instead, he was forced to flee lest his adoptive family learn of his actions and bring justice down upon his head.

The next we see of Moses is as he emerged from forty years of herding sheep in the Sinai wilderness.  Attracted by a burning bush that wasn’t burned up, he has a face to face encounter with God.  At  this time God gives him the assignment:  Lead My people out of Egypt (Exodus 3:10)

Moses would have known how impossible that task was.  He knew how many people there were.  He knew how Pharaoh would react.  He knew the obstacles they would encounter trying to get out of Egypt.  He knew they didn’t have an army that could defeat the Pharaoh and the army of Egypt.

Perhaps the younger version of Moses would have jumped the opportunity for action and glory.  The older Moses immediately started making excuses and raising problems.  What if they don’t believe me?  What if they don’t know who You are?  What if Pharaoh says no?

God wouldn’t have any of it, and he overwhelmed Moses’ fears with answers and assurances that God Himself would be with Moses.  And all along, the bush merrily continued to burn.

Moses’ final objection was that he wasn’t a good speaker.  The original language makes it sound like he might have had a speech impediment.  Again, God wasn’t put off.  He told Moses that his brother Aaron spoke fine and that Moses could bring him along.

It didn’t matter to God that Moses had problems.  It certainly didn’t matter to God that the task was hard.  It was only hard for Moses.  For God, the task of bringing the Israelites out of Egypt wasn’t hard at all.  He already had a masterful plan.

From here, the rest is history, as they say.  Moses went to Pharaoh and told him to let the people go.  Pharaoh, predictably, refused.  So God rained down ten plagues on Pharaoh and Egypt.  The net result of the plagues was that the Egyptian pantheon of gods was thoroughly mocked and discredited, the Egyptian agricultural economy was ruined, and the firstborn of every household in Egypt were killed.  God was comparing himself to Pharaoh, and the comparison wasn’t even close.

To boot, as Pharaoh demanded that the Hebrews leave, God influenced the people of Egypt to give them gold, silver, gems, and garments.  On their way out, the people of Israel plundered the Egyptians and walked off with a huge load of booty.  Then God set up a situation where He allowed Pharaoh to lead his army into the dry path through the Red Sea and brought the waters back to drowned the entire army.

God had a plan to bring Israel out of Egypt.  But He needed a leader to make it happen.  The leader was someone the people could see and listen to and follow.  The leader modeled the faith in God that the people were to imitate.  God spoke to the leader, then the leader spoke to the people, with God’s authority. 

Moses’ problems didn’t matter to God.  Despite his murderous anger, an abundance of excuses, and poor speaking ability God still chose him and used him in some of the mightiest miracles this earth has ever seen.

The influence of leadership and the closeness of his relationship with God had a profound impact on Moses.  In Numbers 12:3 we read “Now the man Moses was very meek, more than all people who were on the face of the earth.” 

This is quite a far cry from the murderous excuse maker.  It just shows that God was bigger than the problem and bigger than the leader himself.

It didn’t matter how many mistakes Moses made, God wasn’t thrown off course nor were His plans ruined.  God’s primary requirement for a leader wasn’t political connections, or a can-do attitude, or even persuasive eloquence.  God had all those things and to spare.

In Hebrews 11, as we read of Faith’s Hall of Fame, Moses receives seven verses talking about the faith that filled his life (23 – 29).  Four times we see that faith was in play in his life.  This is what God values in leaders.  It’s not what we bring to God, but how willing we are to let God be God in our lives.

Now God was on the move.  He was leading His people out of Egypt.  Moses, the flawed leader, had been used by a perfect God to put the plan in motion.  But this wasn’t the end.  More leadership was required.

Part 2:  Into the Promised Land

Who wants to follow a hero?  Conventional wisdom says that the leader who follows a strong, beloved leader is destined for all sorts of trouble. From continual comparisons to managing the grief cycle, the new leader has their work cut out for them.

This is what Joshua faced.  He had been Moses’ lieutenant for almost 40 years.  But just on the verge of the Promised Land, God took Moses’ life in punishment for a sin that occurred at the beginning of the wilderness sojourn.

Joshua opens his book with his leadership anointing and the pep talk God gave him.  Two things really stand out in the first nine verses of Joshua chapter 1:

  • Joshua would not get any warm-up period.  He was to immediately lead the Israelites into the Promised Land.  Of course “over the river into the Promised Land” meant right into the massive wall of the city of Jericho.
  • Joshua was to be strong and courageous.  God repeats this command three times in the pep talk.  Leading these people was not for the weak at heart.  Joshua needed to be bold and to rely upon God.

“Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:9)

God wanted Joshua’s attention.  This was not Joshua’s chance to try out all the ideas that he’d read in management and leadership books.  God wanted Joshua to be courageous because he was operating under God’s wisdom and power.  This wasn’t at all about Joshua.  This was all about God, and God wanted to make sure Joshua understood.

Coming out of this little talk with God, Joshua didn’t waste any time.  He immediately issued marching orders and got the people moving.  Guess what two words Joshua used with the people.  If you said “strong” and “courageous”, you’d be completely right.

Step one of the Joshua plan was to cross the Jordan River.  Normally this was not a huge task.  The Jordan River did not rank among the great rivers of the world.  But this was flood season, and the waters were raging.   Crossing the river with the entire people of Israel was a risky move.

God’s instructions were clear:  walk into the river.  Just do it.  Joshua told the people “The Priests with the Ark of the Covenant are going to walk into the raging river.  Watch!”  So they did.  And God stopped the water of the flooding river so that the nation walked across on dry land. (I address this miracle in considerable detail in Chapter 3 of Faith & Miracles, so I’ll be brief here.)

This freaked out everyone in the land of Canaan.  Crossing the flooding river was completely unexpected.  It put God’s power on display and made them aware that their gods had never done anything so magnificent.

Step two of the Joshua plan was to take the heavily fortified city of Jericho.  This was a huge task.  The king of Jericho had seen Joshua and the people coming and he was doing everything he could to protect his city.

God’s instructions were equally clear:  walk around the city.  This was not in any military handbooks or taught at any of the military colleges of the day.  Taking a castle generally meant a siege, and possibly a battering ram, and maybe trying to dig under the walls.  But this wasn’t what God wanted. 

So Joshua made the people walk around the city every day for a week.  On the last day, they packed a lunch and made the trip seven times and then blew their horns loudly.  That’s when God knocked the walls down.  The people of Israel just had to climb over the rubble to take the city.

At this point, Joshua had been doing very well.  He had followed God’s instructions and two insurmountable obstacles had been overcome in very unconventional fashion.  But because of that, God got the credit and the region fell deeper into the terror of the Israelites, but even more terrified of their God.

Step three of the Joshua plan for possessing the Promised Land was to move on and take the next city.  In this case, it was a much smaller city called Ai.  Only this is where Joshua met his first failure.  The little city routed the troops he sent to defeat them.  They all ran back in shock.

God’s instructions had been very clear:  “Jericho is dedicated exclusively to Me.”  No one was to take any spoils or plunder.  Except not everyone followed the instructions.  Achan couldn’t resist some nice clothes and silver money.  Tempted by his eyes, he hid it under his tent.

But God knew and withdrew His favor from His people.  They suffered their first defeat. 

This stunned Joshua and his leadership team.  Ai was supposed to be no challenge.  How did they lose?  Why had God withdrawn His miraculous power?

Before moving on, Joshua pled with God to explain what had happened.  And God did.  He said that the covenant of Jericho had been broken and the consecrated things were stolen.  So Joshua and the leaders of Israel drew lots until they could discover who had done this.  And when they found Achan, he confessed.  The punishment was death (his sin had caused the death of 36 Israelite soldiers at Ai) because God demanded purity.

Once Achan and his family had been dealt with, the army moved onward and rolled over Ai, as they had expected the first time.  God’s favor was back.

In this fashion, Joshua led the people to conquer the land God had promised to Abram, Isaac, and Jacob.  Under his leadership, the people subdued almost all of the tribes that lived in the region.  They divided up the territory and gave each of the tribes (hailing back to Jacob’s sons) a region to live in.

In general, all was good.  The plan seemed to be going just fine.  Joshua was a good leader and his willingness to follow God brought about the promised outcome.  Finally, the children of Israel had a place to call their own.  God’s promise was coming true.

At the end of his life, Joshua gathered the people together and issued this challenge:

“Now, therefore, fear the LORD and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness. Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD. And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.” (Joshua 24:14-15)

Me and my house, we will serve the Lord.  This was Joshua’s summary of his relationship with God.  As the leader, he had learned the lesson that serving God was far better than trying to lead under his power.  When he tried to go off on his own, he was deceived by the Gibeonites who negotiated a treaty rather than being subdued.  When he served God, he was able to ask and the sun stood still so they could win a great battle.

Joshua was the model of servant leadership.  He epitomized the ideal of the leader who knew where their power came from and did not get a big head about it.  Joshua was humble enough to let God be big and strong.  Joshua didn’t need to take power into his own hands and make it all about him.

Of course, the people answered Joshua “You bet!  That’s exactly what we’re going to do.”  Everything was going well.  It seemed easy to commit to the plan. 

But when Joshua died, everything changed.  God did not appoint another leader.  The people went their way and started living their lives however they wanted.   They did not keep their word.

Part 3:  Victory over Their Enemies

As long as Joshua was around to lead the people, they followed God.  It was easy to look at Joshua and remember the power of God at the Jordan River or Jericho.

And the people served the LORD all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua, who had seen all the great work that the LORD had done for Israel.  (Judges 2:7)

But when Joshua and his leadership team were gone, everything changed.  The people turned away from God and they did what was evil in God’s sight and worshipped the Baal’s and gods of the people of Canaan.   This made God angry.

How do you punish an entire nation of people who anger you?  God chose to bring in foreign military powers to conquer the people and make their lives miserable.  He would then raise a leader, called a Judge, who would defeat the conquerors and lead the people back to God.

The book of Judges covers approximately 400 years.  Over that span, we see the same pattern repeated over and over.  The people disobeyed God, so He brought in an enemy to conquer them.  When life seemed to be unbearable, God chose a Judge to free them and bring them back to Him.  This lasted a while but then the cycle began again.

Judges 4-5 tell the story of Barak and Deborah.  She was a prophetess, someone who spoke to the people on behalf of God.  When Jabin, a king in Canaan, began to oppress several of the tribes, She called Barak and told him to gather an army and go drive Jabin out of the land.

Barak did not exhibit good leadership or proper faith in God.  He wouldn’t take the assignment unless Deborah came with him.  It seems that he did not think God would follow through on the commission he had been given.  So he wanted Deborah and her connection to God to come along too.

Deborah agreed but added a stipulation from God.  Because Barak lacked the faith to follow God on his own, he would be denied the glory of capturing and killing the enemy commander.  God had decided to give that privilege to a woman.

Events happened just as Deborah had said they would.  Barak and his army went up against the forces of Jabin.  God gave them into Barak’s hand and he routed the enemy.  Sisera, the enemy commander fled for his life.  Barak pursued, but Sisera escaped.

Sisera ran as far as he could.  When he was about to drop from exhaustion, he came across the tent where Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, lived.  Sisera asked for water, but Jael craftily gave him warm milk and covered him with a blanket.  Being exhausted, he fell asleep.  When she was sure he was out, Jael took a tent peg and a hammer and drove it through Sisera’s temple and into the ground.

Barak, along with Deborah introduced a short period where the people followed God.  But when they were gone, the people reverted to their old habits.  The returned to the gods of the Canaanites and resumed the worship of idols.

Once again, God became angry and brought an army from the kingdom of Midan to punish them.  The Israelites would plant crops, but as soon as they harvested, the Midianite army would sweep in from the East and steal the grain.

Finally, the people cried out to God and he heard their pleas.  God chose a man named Gideon, the youngest son of a minor family in the tribe of Manasseh to be their leader and defeat the Midianites.

Gideon’s first task was to oppose his father and the rest of his family on behalf of God.  This first assignment shows us God’s interest in the spiritual condition of His people over their status as free or oppressed.

Gideon’s family had a sacred pole where they used to go to worship Ashtoreth, a pagan goddess.  That night, Gideon snuck out of his tent and cut down the pole, destroyed the altar to Baal next to it and dragged the wood to the center of the settlement.  There he built an altar to God, sacrificed one of the family oxen and burned it with the wood of the Ashtoreth pole.

Before Gideon could lead God’s people, he had to be rightly aligned to God.  God wanted Gideon’s heart before he wanted his leadership.  Once Gideon had revealed the quality of his heart, God was ready to use him.

Gideon proved an effective recruiter, and soon had an army of thirty-two thousand men.  The Midianite army was much larger, but God had great plans for this attack. God told Gideon to winnow down his troops to only three hundred men.  There was to be no mistake who was behind the victory that God would bring about.

One night while the Midianite army slept in camp in a valley, Gideon deployed his men with covered torches and trumpets around the camp.  At a signal, they removed the covers to reveal the torches and blew their trumpets.

When the Midianites woke to the trumpet blast, God caused them to become confused.  They couldn’t tell friend from foe and started fighting with one another.  Then those who survived turned and fled.  Gideon pursued them until he had captured and killed their leaders.  The rest of the army scattered.

The children looked at Gideon with hero-worship after that.  They asked him to become their king and establish a dynasty of rulers.  Gideon declined.

Gideon said to them, “I will not rule over you, and my son will not rule over you; the LORD will rule over you.” (Judges 8:23)

Because God had tested Gideon’s heart, Gideon had the right answer when the temptation came to exalt himself over God.  He understood that the victory had been all God’s doing. He was just the leader that God had selected to be a part of the divine plan.

For the rest of his life, Gideon judged the people of Israel.  While he was alive, they followed God.  But when he died, they turned back to the idols of the Canaanites.

Throughout the book of Judges, we see this same pattern repeat.  The people sin and worship foreign idols. God brings in an outside army to punish them.  God chooses a leader to restore His people.  For a time the people follow God, but eventually, they drift back to idolatry.

God Chooses Leaders

Throughout this section of the Bible, we see how God’s focus had settled on the children of Israel.  He was going about the process of fulfilling His promise to Abram, Isaac, and Jacob.  Rather than waving a divine magic wand, He chose leaders to achieve the results that He wanted to accomplish. 

One of the constant lessons that we see from this section of the Bible is that despite divinely appointed leadership, the people of Israel continually choose to ignore God.  Whether they were grumbling in the wilderness, giving up on the process of subduing the Promised Land or turning to the local idols the people continually fell away from God.

Fortunately, God was faithful to continually call new leaders to bring the people back to Him. He didn’t become frustrated or weary with this repetitive action.  He had a greater plan to pursue, and this was but one part of it.  He still had the problem of Genesis three to solve.  When the time was right, He needed His people to be ready.

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God Chooses His People

In just a very short time, a lot has happened in the Bible.  The first three chapters of Genesis are loaded with events that set up everything else that follows for the rest of the Bible.

God has been established as the “Good Guy” of the story.  He created everything that we see (and even the bits that we don’t see) out of nothing.  Such was His creative power that every single thing He made was good.  That is, it was not missing anything.   In every respect, it aligned exactly to what God intended.

We met the “Bad Guy” in the serpent of the garden.  He cannot stand all the goodness that God created, and decided to spoil God’s crowning creation, the one thing God created “in His own image.”  So the serpent attacked Eve with crafty words and convinced her that it was in her best interest to eat from the tree of which God had said “in the day you eat of it, you will die.”

Finally we see Adam as the guy in the middle.  Once he saw Eve eat of the forbidden fruit, he knew he had a choice.  Despite being created in God’s image, despite being placed in the middle of a perfect garden, despite chats with God in the cool of the evening, he made a selfish decision and chose to go where Eve went, even if it meant the grave.  In this moment, Adam aligned himself with the serpent.

The Bible refers to Adam as our “head” (Romans 5:12).  That means that in his actions, he represented all of us.  Even though we didn’t get the chance to experience the garden or chats with God, the same consequences he earned come to us.  Of course, we ratify his decision when we individually sin and fall short of God’s standard.

God kicked everyone out of the Garden of Eden and posted a cherub with a flaming sword at the gate to ensure that nobody came back and ate of the Tree of Life.  At this point, humanity was moving in one direction, and it was the opposite of the direction God intended.

This leaves us with a question:  “How is all of this going to be set right?”  It’s frustrating to see how good it could have been, but then in one moment everything was destroyed.   Was there any hope for humanity?  Would God’s original order ever be restored?

With these questions in mind, we move into the rest of the book of Genesis.  It’s a big book, fifty chapters long.  It tells the story of six people:

  1. Adam – which we’ve already read.
  2. Abel (and Cain)
  3. Noah
  4. Abram (later called Abraham)
  5. Isaac (Abraham’s son)
  6. Jacob (Isaac’s son)

These six people get us going as we look at the next chapter of the total biblical story.  God’s first move is to choose a people who He can call His own.  The remaining five people set that story in motion.  They answer the question “Who will God choose as His own?”

Cain and his brother Able Genesis 4:1-8

Straightaway, after the expulsion from the garden, we read of Eve giving birth to two brothers.  Cain was the older and Abel the younger.  As they grew, these two boys chose very different paths.  The Bible describes Cain as a “worker of the ground” and Abel as a “keeper of sheep.”  In other words, Cain was a farmer and Abel was a rancher.

When the time came to bring an offering to the Lord, each young man brought the fruit of his hands.  Cain brought the most succulent produce he had grown.  Think of the reddest tomatoes and the biggest cucumbers you’ve ever seen.  Abel brought a lamb or two, and sacrificed them.

God accepted Abel’s offering, and rejected Cain’s.  We aren’t told how God’s choice was communicated.  It could have been something dramatic like fire consuming one and leaving the other (that’s how God communicated to Elijah and the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18:38).  Or perhaps it was a communication in a dream.  Either way, both men knew that God had accepted Abel’s offering and not Cain’s.

Later in the Bible we gain some additional insight on this.  Hebrews 9:22 says “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.”  So it’s possible that only Abel’s sacrifice covered his sins because it involved the blood of a lamb.

Hebrews 11:4 looks back at this story and proclaims that Abel gave his offering in faith.  Perhaps Cain did not.   It’s possible that Cain was just going through the motions, and because of that  God rejected his gift.

It’s clear from this that not everyone would be God’s people.  While it might be nice to think of universal acceptance, this is not the way that God seems to work – or that people seem to behave.  From the very beginning, some people gained God’s approval through faith.  Others lacked faith and did not gain favor.

From this story alone, we begin to get the idea of what it takes to become one of God’s people.  The writer to the Hebrews describes this as “faith.”  However, we also see that those who do not have this faith are not accepted as well.  The rest of the story of Cain and Abel is God delivering punishment on Cain and his path being set away from God.

Noah Found Favor (Genesis 6:5-9)

The next story we encounter is that of Noah.  Most people know this story in that God told Noah it was going to rain when it had never rained before.  His instructions to Noah were to build a big wooden ark in which the animals of the world could be saved from drowning. 

Before Noah pounded the first nail, however, we need to look at the run up to the story.   God looked down from heaven upon the situation on the Earth and rendered a judgment:

The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the LORD regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.

This is exactly the opposite of the “it is good” judgment that followed each of the steps of creation.  After letting humans have their way for a while, God was full of regret for His creation because it no longer reflected Him or His glory.

If we stop at Genesis 6:7, it sounds like this story is going to be really short!  God declared that the situation on Earth was so bad that His only option was to destroy all living things.  To answer the question, “How will God restore the lost relationship?” it seems that the answer was “He won’t.”  Maybe He would start over again. 

In one of the great turnarounds of the Bible, Genesis 6:8 says, “But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.”

The Bible describes Noah himself as righteous and blameless and one who walked with God.  Noah did not participate in the wickedness of his day.  Rather than living for himself, he lived for God.  We don’t know the details of Noah’s daily practice, but it is clear that he understood who God was and that God had a different standard than everyone else.

Because Noah found favor, God did not need to destroy life on Earth.  I don’t think God ever intended to destroy all life.  I think in His power, He raised up Noah to carry on life and allow Him to execute punishment on all the wicked people who were living in such an abominable fashion. The discussion of global destruction was included as a way for God to communicate to Moses how He felt about all the rest of the people of Noah’s day.

With the plan for a major rainstorm coming, God gave Noah the plans for the ark and kicked off the century-long building project.  Noah endured the curiosity, then the ridicule of his neighbors as he slowly built this enormous vessel.  He and his sons labored alone to craft it according to the specifications God provided.  And then God brought the animals, two-by-two as we like to sing.  And Noah ushered them all into the ark.

When God finally closed the door, it was shut and would not open, even when the mocking neighbors beat on the door, begging for access.  When the rain began to fall, it was a novel concept until the water on the ground started to puddle, then rise up.  For forty days and nights the rain fell until water covered the face of the earth.  In that deluge, all life was drowned.

In this we see the judgment God desired in Genesis 6:7. All humans, animals and things that creep about on the earth were destroyed in the flood. But God preserved Noah and his family through the flood. And in order to restore life on earth, God preserved one family of every living thin on the face of the earth.

In the story of Noah we see that God actively chose people to be the recipients of His favor.  We also see that those living lives of wickedness were most definitely NOT the people God would choose to be His people and bring about the promise of Genesis 3. 

Noah’s righteousness stands as testimony for what pleases God.

Abram the Patriarch of a Nation (Genesis 15)

Using the genealogies of Genesis as a guide, Noah was still alive when Abram was born in Ur.  The world was three hundred years post-flood and it seems that Noah’s lesson hadn’t penetrated very deeply into the mind of humanity.

When he was seventy-five years old (middle age in those days), God called Abram out of Mesopotamia to a new place.  In faith, Abram picked up and moved, not sure where he would end up.  His faith pleased God, and God decided to zero in on Abram and his family to be a special people. 

Genesis 15 describes the conversation between God and Abraham when God made an unbreakable vow with Abram to be singled out of all the families on the earth and have a special contractual, covenanted relationship with Himself. 

The strange sacrifice which was described is actually the kind of symbol that was used when two kings made a treaty.  The person walking the path between the animal halves was basically saying “may I be like these animals, split in half, if I break the word I have given to you.”  It was the strongest kind of language and imagery that was available in Abram’s day to swear that a promise was good.

Genesis 15 describes that God alone walked between the animal halves.  This means that God unconditionally bound Himself to Abram and his descendants.  Abram could not break the treaty, because he never swore to perform anything.  All the commitment was upon God.

The treaty God made with Abram had several components:

  1. Abram’s family would be vast and numerous – at that time, Abram and his wife Sara were childless.
  2. God would give Abram a land to call his own – at that time, it was occupied by numerous Canaanite tribes.
  3. God bound Himself to Abram and his family to come. 
  4. Through Abram’s family, God would bless all families.

Prior to this four-fold covenant, God had chosen individual people who lived righteously and walked by faith in Him.  Genesis mentions Abel, Enoch and Noah as three such people.

The covenant changed everything.  Now rather that God choosing those who lived properly, he had bound himself to one family line, regardless of how they chose to live.

This means it was possible for God to be bound to His people, but they could reject Him and live any way they wanted.  As we study further, we’ll see that’s exactly what happened.  But for now, we see that God was all about picking one family tree and binding Himself exclusively to that family to accomplish His goals as promised in Genesis 3.

When Abraham had died, and his son Isaac was carrying on the family line, God appeared to him as well.  In Genesis 26, God re-affirmed His commitment to Isaac.

I will be with you and will bless you, for to you and to your offspring I will give all these lands, and I will establish the oath that I swore to Abraham your father. (Genesis 26:3)

In ratifying the covenant with Isaac, God made it clear that He was choosing the line of Isaac to affirm His promise. Abraham’s other son, Ishmael, was not included in this promise.  Ishmael received a different blessing and commitment from God in Genesis 21:15-21.

Isaac had two sons as well.  The oldest was named Esau and the youngest Jacob.  As these boys grew, they chose very different paths through life.  Esau was the hunter, and Jacob was the gardener.    Unlike with Cain and Abel, Jacob was not rejected by God for an improper offering.

God actually chose Jacob to receive the ratification of the blessing he had offered to Abraham and Isaac.  In Jacob’s famous vision of the stairway to heaven, God reiterated yet again the same promise that He had made to Abraham and Isaac.

  • Numerous descendants
  • A land to call their own
  • God would be with them
  • Though this great people, God’s blessing would extend to all peoples.

Once again, Esau was cut out from this line of this promise.  If flowed down through Abram, Isaac and Jacob.  By the end of Genesis, we read that Jacob (by then renamed by God to Israel) had twelve sons.  These sons each because the leader of a clan or tribe of their own descendants.  From this we get the twelve tribes of Israel.

Over three generations, God narrowed down and focused the scope of His attentions to a single family.  He bound Himself to them and promised them great numbers and a land to call their own.  Through this one family, He would work to accomplish all of his promises in Genesis three.

The Proof is in the Pudding

In the last act of the book of Genesis, we see God’s active care and protection of this family He had chosen.  Ten of the sons of Jacob became jealous of one of their brothers.  In an act of unimaginable cruelty, they sold him into slavery and told their father the lie that a wild animal had killed him.

What they didn’t know was that God had a plan for this family.  While they meant it for evil, God used this one rejected son to provide a path of salvation for the entire family.  For while Joseph was sold as a slave, God arranged for him to become a grand vizier of Egypt, second in power only to the Pharaoh. 

Joseph knew God and knew how to follow Him.  While in Egypt, he did not abandon his faith, but held true to God.  Because of this, he was warned of a great famine coming and told Pharaoh to stockpile grain against the lean days to come.  Through God’s provision, while the region suffered in hunger, Egypt had grain to spare.

When Jacob’s family ran out of grain in Canaan, God used the bounty of Egypt to save them.  Joseph, the rejected son, reached out his hand and arranged a favorable settlement in the delta of the Nile River.

God was holding up His end of the bargain.  He took the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to be His own people and set them up with the provisions they needed.  Against all odds, they prospered when all others struggled.

This brings us to the end of the book of Genesis.  It ends on a favorable note.  God has chosen His people.  He has saved them from famine, and set them up in a good situation in Egypt.  They are not yet as numerous as the stars of the sky.  They do not yet have a place to call their own.  But It’s is clear that they are enjoying the favor of God.