Your Amazing Faith, Part 1

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Faith, it is said, can move mountains. But can it really? Have you ever tried to move a mountain with your faith? Of course, we know that when Jesus spoke those words in Mathew 17:20, He wasn’t referring to real mountains. He was referring to metaphorical mountains. With faith the size of a mustard seed (that’s a tiny amount of faith), a believer is able to move mountains of – you name it – pain, illness, debt, emotional problems, marital problems. And yet, if you’re like me, and you have that little bit of faith, you also have mountains that never give way to it.

Was Jesus wrong when He said that faith can move mountains? We know that can’t be true because Jesus is the Son of God and that fact precludes His being wrong or telling a fib. So He must mean something else. But what? Studying faith is like trying to dribble a football (that is, an American football). Just when you think you can, you find out you can’t. Just when you think you get a handle on what faith is all about, you discover you don’t. And it’s back to the drawing board you go.

Over the next few weeks, I’d like to explore Biblical faith. What it is, and what it can add to your life. And this will be an important study because of this single verse:

And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him. (Hebrews 11:6 | NIV84)

If you’re a believer, then you probably want to please God. You need faith to do that, therefore you need to know just what Biblical faith is.

In Romans, Paul wrote about faith, and in his opinion faith isn’t something normally present in a person. It’s not native to a human being.

Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ. (Romans 10:17 | NIV84)

The word “consequently,” or “therefore” in the KJV, links verse 17 to something preceding it.

But not all the Israelites accepted the good news. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed our message?”. (Romans 10:16-17a | NIV84)

So Paul was quoting from the book of Isaiah, specifically Isaiah 53:1, when he referred to faith resulting from hearing a certain message. What message? What is the message both Paul and the Old Testament prophet thought was so powerful that it literally brings faith into the hearts of those who just hear it?

Let’s take a look at the context of Romans 10 and we’ll discover the basis of our faith.

Two kinds of people

Here in Romans, Paul has in mind two kinds of people: the zealous Jewish moralist and the believing Gentile. The key to understanding the quandary of faith is understanding what Paul wrote in chapter 9 –

What then shall we say? That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; but Israel, who pursued a law of righteousness, has not attained it. (Romans 9:30-32a | NIV84)

In other words, there were zealous, well-meaning Jews who had spent a lifetime pursuing holiness and righteousness before God yet accomplishing nothing of eternal value because they were using the law to obtain that which can only be obtained by simple faith. But on the other hand, there were Gentiles, who had never heard of the law or tried to obey it, yet they had obtained righteousness because they had faith.

How is this possible? How is it possible to be righteous through faith and not through good works? It’s because – as Paul had argued in the first eight chapters of Romans – all men are sinners and simply cannot approach God on the basis of good works.

Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works. They stumbled over the “stumbling stone.” (Romans 9:32 | NIV84)

So these zealous, misinformed Jews thought they could become holy, righteous people simply by obeying a list of do’s and don’ts. This, Paul maintains, is impossible. Only through faith can a person become righteous in God’s sight. The sad but sincere Jew Paul had in mind, was so busy minding the law that he literally tripped over Jesus, whom Paul refers to as a “stumbling stone,” as he again quoted from Isaiah –

As it is written: “See, I lay in Zion a stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.”. (Romans 9:33 | NIV84)

That’s actually God speaking through the prophet. God set a “stone” in Zion – in Israel – that caused Jews to stumble and fall down. Jesus, our Savior, became “like a stumbling stone or block” in that Jews who were busy minding the letter of the law missed Him completely or tripped over Him as one would trip over an inconveniently placed stone on a path. Because they were so focused on themselves in relation to the law, they couldn’t see Jesus and they couldn’t hear His message.

That’s the big problem with this legalistic approach to righteousness, by the way. Because man is a sinner, he doesn’t judge himself correctly nor does he see his own moral and spiritual shortcomings. He judges himself against other people, and supposes himself to be all right or as good or better than others. The odds are that a person who thinks this way will become proud and self-seeking, which is the root of all sin. People like this, and the church today is full of them, overlook or trip over God’s way of righteousness, which comes a gift given in grace: faith in Jesus Christ. It’s an ironic tragedy: these people so zealous for God were rejected by Him over their misplaced zeal. Yes, these moral legalists were and are sincere, but sincerely wrong. Here’s the rub: Sincerity is worthwhile only if you’re right. There are a lot of very sincere people who are wrong in their approach to God. They foolishly think they can earn their way through the pearly gates by doing good things or simply by going to church and believing the right stuff. These activities are good and are part of the Christian life, but salvation doesn’t come that way. A lot of churches, for example, make their young people pass a test before making them members of the church. That’s all well and good but that doesn’t make you a Christian.

The law versus faith boils down to a message

The whole point of this discussion is boiled down in these verses –

Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved. 2 For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge. (Romans 10:1-3a | NIV84)

So, where does the knowledge come from? You and I know this knowledge as the Gospel. Paul does too. But remember to whom he’s writing: Jews. That’s why he quotes so freely from the Old Testament. All through Romans 10 Paul quotes from the likes of Moses, Isaiah, Joel; all men held in high esteem by Jews. Paul uses what these men wrote and sums up his argument this way –

For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile–the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Romans 10:12-13a | NIV84)

That last bit is a quote from Joel 2 and what Paul said here, though obvious to us, must have been a stunning declaration to the Jews of his day: God doesn’t distinguish between people when it comes to salvation. Jew or Gentile doesn’t matter because all people without Christ are lost and in need of saving. In our time and corner of the world today, we might say something like this: Whether you are a good person or a sketchy criminal type, you both need to be saved. God doesn’t prefer the good person over the bad. Both are sinners and God is the only one who can save them both.

The problem Paul sees is two-fold. First, how do we get this word out to people? And, second, who’s going to take it? Paul addresses this problem, and again he uses the words of Isaiah –

How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (Romans 10:14-15a | NIV84)

We’re getting close to discovering what “the message” is that produces faith one’s heart. There’s a lot going on in these two verses in the form of questions:

How can a person call on someone to be saved if they don’t believe in him in the first place? That’s a good question and points to the fact of the necessity of salvation. The “belief” here is not a mental exercise. A lot of people believe in Jesus Christ – that is, they believe He existed and so on. But that’s not what we might call “saving faith.” How can a sinner call out for salvation if he has no confidence or belief in the one to whom he is calling? If a sinner is to call out for salvation, then, he must have faith planted in him. Why? Because that faith isn’t there naturally; human beings aren’t born with “saving” faith in them.

The second question indicates the necessity of a sinner learning about Jesus Christ, the only one who can save. If a person hasn’t heard of Jesus Christ – or more specifically what Jesus Christ did for him the Cross – then he can’t be saved. Remember what Peter said in his famous Pentecostal sermon –

Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12 | NIV84)

What’s really interesting about Paul’s quote from Isaiah in Romans 10:15 is the context of Isaiah 52. The prophet has in mind the exiles in Babylon. Not all, but many of the exiles living in Babylon were faithfully waiting for the Lord to come to their rescue. Here’s the Word of the Lord to them as Isaiah proclaimed it –

For this is what the Sovereign Lord says: “At first my people went down to Egypt to live;lately, Assyria has oppressed them. “And now what do I have here?” declares the Lord. “For my people have been taken away for nothing, and those who rule them mock,”declares the Lord.“And all day long my name is constantly blasphemed. Therefore my people will know my name;therefore in that day they will know that it is I who foretold it.Yes, it is I.” (Isaiah 52:4 | NIV84)

Tempted to give up and give in, these exiles stuck in Babylon longed to be set free. The exclamation, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news,” is what these sad and sorrowful exiles exclaimed when saw the messengers coming with the news and they heard that “good news” that their exile was over and that they could go home.

Such are the “beautiful” feet of Paul and the countless preachers and missionaries down through time who were called by God and went out to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ to all the spiritual exiles longing to be set free. Our Lord put it this way –

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. (Matthew 5:6 | NIV84)

In this first study of faith, we learn the powerful lesson that without Christ nobody can be saved; that it is faith in Him and His work that results in our salvation. But nobody can gin up the faith to believe in Him unless He puts it there first. The faith to believe comes from the message of the Gospel – the Word of God. And the Gospel came first through Jesus Christ and then through the innumerable men and women whom He called to take it to those who need to hear it.

Jeremiah Was a Prophet, Part 6

The Fall of Jerusalem at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar

The Fall of Jerusalem at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar

When we began this survey of Jeremiah’s writings, we noted that he was referred to as “the Weeping Prophet” for  of a couple of reasons. First, Jeremiah’s message from God was not a popular one. In fact, it was so unpopular that on more than one occasion Jeremiah’s life was put in jeopardy on account of it. His message was not accepted by anyone who heard it.

The word of the Lord came to me again: “What do you see?” “I see a boiling pot, tilting away from the north,” I answered. The Lord said to me, “From the north disaster will be poured out on all who live in the land. I am about to summon all the peoples of the northern kingdoms,” declares the Lord. “Their kings will come and set up their thrones in the entrance of the gates of Jerusalem;they will come against all her surrounding walls and against all the towns of Judah. I will pronounce my judgments on my people because of their wickedness in forsaking me,in burning incense to other gods and in worshiping what their hands have made. (Jeremiah 1:13-16 | NIV84)

Nobody wanted to hear this, especially during years of relative prosperity. Add to that the many false prophets who were running around preaching the exact opposite and it’s no wonder Jeremiah wept! But there was another, very pathetic reason for the weeping: he loved his people and he didn’t want to see his beloved Jerusalem fall and his people hauled off and held in exile.

It’s sobering when we realize how oblivious the Jews were to their own spiritual condition and the consequences of their stubborn sin. Even following a great revival, the people continued to think they could renege on the covenant they had with Jehovah. They lived as though His Word meant nothing at all. It was a rude awakening when the citizens of Judah realized the wrath of God was about to hit in full force.

What happened to Judah (and Israel) is part of the historical record of that part of the world. But what happened to the God’s people should serve as a warning to all nations and individuals. No nation and no person can ignore God for long, and as blessed as a nation has been, if it continually turns its back on God, it will face dire consequences.

The fall of Jerusalem

So in the ninth year of Zedekiah’s reign, on the tenth day of the tenth month, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon marched against Jerusalem with his whole army. They camped outside the city and built siege works all around it. The city was kept under siege until the eleventh year of King Zedekiah. By the ninth day of the fourth month the famine in the city had become so severe that there was no food for the people to eat. (Jeremiah 52:4-6 | NIV84)

There at Riblah the king of Babylon slaughtered the sons of Zedekiah before his eyes; he also killed all the officials of Judah. Then he put out Zedekiah’s eyes, bound him with bronze shackles and took him to Babylon, where he put him in prison till the day of his death. (Jeremiah 52:10-11 | NIV84)

The material contained in Jeremiah 52 is so important, it is found in 2 King 25:18 – 25:30. This shows just how important these events are in Hebrew history. What happened to Judah was the greatest catastrophe to ever befall any nation in Old Testament times. Yet, apparently once was not enough.  A similar event took place in 70 AD, also in Jerusalem, at the hands of the Romans. The simple fact is this: the destruction of Jerusalem vindicated the Word of the Lord. Jeremiah’s predictions – and in fact those of many prophets before him – did come to pass.

Already Nebuchadnezzar had swept into Judah and taken off many captives, exiling them in Babylon. At least there, these pesky Jews were kept under control. Not so back in the homeland. By 589 BC, Zedekiah, bowing to public pressure, rebelled against Nebuchadnezzar and in 588 BC Jerusalem was placed under siege. The rest of Judah was completely occupied by Babylonian troops.

Jeremiah bitterly predicted that the city would be destroyed if the rebellion continued and the only hope of survival lay in surrendering to Nebuchadnezzar and co-operating with him. Here’s what he told the people –

Whoever stays in this city will die by the sword, famine or plague. But whoever goes out and surrenders to the Babylonians who are besieging you will live; he will escape with his life. (Jeremiah 21:9 | NIV84)

Naturally, patriotic Jews viewed this statement as treasonous. This coupled with a brief respite from the violence of Nebuchadnezzar and his armies caused the people to resent Jeremiah even more. A very similar thing had happened before during Sennacherib’s time, when another siege was lifted permanently. Surely, the people assumed, this would happen again. It didn’t. Jeremiah made sure the people understood this, and they hated him even more!

The prophet, taking a bit of a break during this brief time of peace, decided to take a trip back to Benjamin to look after some property he owned there. He was grabbed by some members of the army and accused of deserting to the Babylonians. Could things get any worse for the prophet of God? Well, yes, actually, because after denying the charges vigorously, Jeremiah was thrown into prison. According to some sources, it wasn’t just a prison but a dungeon, with no light, no water, and no food. Had it not been for Zedekiah’s timely, if not misguided, intervention, our faithful prophet might have died there.

Zedekiah the king was a conflicted man. He didn’t have much for God, but he didn’t care much for the Babylonians either and, not wanting to take any chances, had Jeremiah brought to him on the down low, so as not to anger the nationalists.

Then King Zedekiah sent for him and had him brought to the palace, where he asked him privately, “Is there any word from the Lord?” “Yes,” Jeremiah replied, “you will be handed over to the king of Babylon.” (Jeremiah 37:17 | NIV84)

In one form or another, Jeremiah remained incarcerated for the duration of the siege. Just like the apostle Paul, this Old Testament prophet kept up preaching God’s Word of immanent disaster. And yet, in spite of what was about to happen, Jeremiah did an unusual thing: he arranged for the purchase of some land in his home town. It was a leap of faith; an indication that even though the immediate future looked bleak, at some point in the future Judah would be Jewish once again.

Then, just as the Lord had said, my cousin Hanamel came to me in the courtyard of the guard and said, ‘Buy my field at Anathoth in the territory of Benjamin. Since it is your right to redeem it and possess it, buy it for yourself.’“I knew that this was the word of the Lord; so I bought the field at Anathoth from my cousin Hanamel and weighed out for him seventeen shekels of silver. (Jeremiah 32:8-9 | NIV84)

“In their presence I gave Baruch these instructions: ‘This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Take these documents, both the sealed and unsealed copies of the deed of purchase, and put them in a clay jar so they will last a long time. For this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Houses, fields and vineyards will again be bought in this land.’ (Jeremiah 32:13-15 | NIV84)

Nebuzaradan, the captain of Nebuchadnezzar’s elite troops, took even more captives and in 587 BC, Jerusalem was sacked, it’s walls broken down, many buildings razed to the ground, and the glorious Temple, center of the Jewish faith, was completely destroyed. Zedekiah attempted to run but was caught and before his eyes were gouged out, he witnessed the execution of his children. There is a very high price to pay for not paying attention to the Word of the Lord. Zedekiah learned this, as did most of the citizens of Judah. All the work and accomplishments of David, Solomon, and a godly generation almost vanished during an evening of violence, fire, and bloodshed.

Life in exile

After two deportations (one more would take place), Judah lost much of its population. In Babylon, the exiles clung to their faith like they hadn’t in generations. While in exile, the Jewish faith was further developed and organized. Meanwhile, back in Judah, those Jews who hadn’t been put in exile continued to live as best they could and the form of Jewish faith practiced there soon became more superstitious in nature.

After the fall of Jerusalem, Nebuchadnezzar took care of Jeremiah –

Now Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon had given these orders about Jeremiah through Nebuzaradan commander of the imperial guard: “Take him and look after him; don’t harm him but do for him whatever he asks.” So Nebuzaradan the commander of the guard, Nebushazban a chief officer, Nergal-Sharezer a high official and all the other officers of the king of Babylon sent and had Jeremiah taken out of the courtyard of the guard. They turned him over to Gedaliah son of Ahikam, the son of Shaphan, to take him back to his home. So he remained among his own people. (Jeremiah 39:11-14 | NIV84)

While there, the prophet continued to minister to his people in the form letters; he sent letters to the exiles living in Babylon. Here’s an sample of what he wrote to them –

This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” (Jeremiah 29:4-7 | NIV84)

The interesting thing in that paragraph is the revelation that it wasn’t Nebuchadnezzar who carried the Jews into exile, it was the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel! There is no better example of God’s sovereignty than that!

Just like God was with His people during their desert wanderings after their exodus from Egypt, so He was with them in the Babylonian exile. In both instances, He was punishing them, yet He never left them. Jeremiah’s letter contains some of the most beautiful, comforting verses anywhere in the Bible, including these –

You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.” (Jeremiah 29:13-14 | NIV84)

And they did seek the Lord. And 70 years later, the Jews returned home. But they never returned en mass, with many Jews choosing to remain in Babylon, or as it was becoming, the Persian Empire. Those who did return, though, found “strangers” living in their land, practicing an odd form of Judaism. Those “strangers” were in reality descendants of those left in Judah after the deportations to Babylon two generations earlier! There was some animosity between them and the returning exiles, and the exiles had a difficult time rebuilding Jerusalem, as detailed in the Old Testament historical books of Ezra and Nehemiah.

What of all the Jews who remained in Babylon? There were huge and important communities living and prospering in Babylon that actually helped in rebuilding Jerusalem and Judah by sending financial support to those engaged in those efforts. Even after the Temple was rebuilt and the walls around Jerusalem restored, these large Jewish communities throughout the Babylonian and Persian Empires persisted throughout the Old and New Testament era and beyond. After the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, these Jewish communities became the centers of Jewish life and culture for over a thousand years.

The Babylonian exile was more than just an “event” in Hebrew history. It wasn’t just a hiatus in the life of Judaism. It was, in fact, a vital stage in the development of not only Judaism, but also in that of Christianity and, unfortunately, Islam. The Babylonian exile may be viewed as the beginning of the Diaspora (Greek for “dispersion”). The Diaspora is a name given to Jewish communities living outside of Judah and Israel, and it continues to this very day, over 2,500 years after Nebchadnezzar’s time.  Viewing the Babylonian exile through the long lense of God’s involvement in history, we realize that, far from a terrible thing, it was actually fortuitous. Jewish theology and doctrine were further developed and firmed up and stored for all time.  Nebuchadnezzar was used by God to judge His people, yes, but thanks to God’s sovereignty, we have preserved for us divine beliefs and practices that otherwise may not have survived the reckless and haphazard treatment treatment at the hands of God’s own people.  God’s sovereignty is an amazing thing!

 

Jeremiah Was a Prophet, Part 5

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Jeremiah had a tough row to hoe. He was relatively young when God called him to be a prophet, and Jeremiah was sure he was just too young; too inexperienced. That’s probably how most of us feel when we’re faced with doing something we know the Lord wants us to do. The thing about God is this pesky passage:

Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations. (Jeremiah 1:5 NIV | 11)

That’s God laying it on the line for Jeremiah. When you realize, as our reluctant prophet soon did, that God knows you that well and that He is absolutely in charge of your life, it’s hard to argue with Him. You may think you aren’t good enough; worthy enough; spiritual enough; or whatever enough, but if God called you, then obviously He thinks you’re up to the challenge. To make matter ever worse, whom God calls, He equips:

Then the Lord reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, “I have put my words in your mouth.” (Jeremiah 1:9 NIV | 11)

Well, that’s it then, isn’t it? The discussion was over for Jeremiah, and it’s over for us too. When God calls, just do what Mary, Jesus’ mother told some people:

But his mother told the servants, “Do whatever he tells you to.” (John 2:5 TLB)

The first verse in Jeremiah 26 sets the scene –

Early in the reign of Jehoiakim son of Josiah king of Judah… (NIV | 84)

Jeremiah began his ministry during the reign of Josiah, who was a godly king, and under whose direction many religious reforms were instituted and a great revival took place. Josiah was killed in battle and very shortly thereafter, Judah became, for a time, a puppet state of Egypt. The king of Egypt put Josiah’s son, Jehoiakim, on the throne in Judah. He was a weak man, materialistic and self-centered. He not only rounded up and persecuted innocent citizens, but he tried to have Jeremiah killed. His end came none too soon:

Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon attacked him and bound him with bronze shackles to take him to Babylon. (2 Chronicles 36:6 NIV | 84)

Jehoiakim’s son, Jehoiachin, took over from his father, and just like his father he was a weak ruler who would have nothing to do with God. Nebuchadnezzar soon ended his career and took him off the throne and brought him to become a slave in Babylon. Like father, like son.

Self deception

This was the Lord’s instructions to His prophet:

This is what the LORD says: Stand in the courtyard of the LORD’s house and speak to all the people of the towns of Judah who come to worship in the house of the LORD. Tell them everything I command you; do not omit a word.” (Jeremiah 26:2 NIV | 84)

This incident, though in chapter 26, actually took place back in chapters 7 – 10. With the passing of Josiah, the people, bereft of a sound leader of faith, soon lost interest in the religious reforms that Josiah put in place. Jeremiah, a prophet and man of vision, understood well the precarious position Judah had put herself in. Time was running out. The nation stood at the crossroads and her only hope was to return to God and if that was to happen, it would have to happen soon before the people drifted further away. Disregarding the obvious danger to himself, Jeremiah stepped up and, as Mary counselled generations later, he simply did what God had told him to do. As one Bible scholar noted,

Jeremiah stepped into the public light as a statesman of intrepid courage and political insight.

The message from God was a simple, direct, and highly offensive to the people who heard it – priests, prophets, and all the people: If they didn’t listen to the Word of God, their holy temple and city would be destroyed and made to be a curse before all nations. Their reaction was predictable and belied the violence in their hearts:

But as soon as Jeremiah finished telling all the people everything the LORD had commanded him to say, the priests, the prophets and all the people seized him and said, “You must die! Why do you prophesy in the LORD’s name that this house will be like Shiloh and this city will be desolate and deserted?” And all the people crowded around Jeremiah in the house of the LORD. (Jeremiah 26:8, 9 NIV | 84)

Sure, they “crowded around Jeremiah in the house of the Lord,” but it wasn’t because they were listening in rapt attention to his dire words. They wanted to kill him! They wanted to stone the prophet to death because his sermon dared to contradict what the so-called professional prophets, priests, and religious leaders had been telling the people. To them, Jeremiah wasn’t preaching the Word of the Lord, he was guilty of blasphemy. The Temple of God, meant to be the dwelling place of God and the repository of His Word and teachings, had been turned into a symbol of the priest’s power over the people. In preaching something contrary to their teachings and going against the “majority opinion,” Jeremiah was undermining their authority. If this sounds familiar, something very similar happened to our Lord when He prophesied about the immanent destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem in His day:

Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings. “Do you see all these things?” he asked. “I tell you the truth, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” (Matthew 24:1, 2 NIV | 84)

Then some stood up and gave this false testimony against him: “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this man-made temple and in three days will build another, not made by man.’ ” (mark 14:57, 58 NIV | 84)

Sometimes taking a stand for God and the truth can be outright dangerous. A lot of believers misunderstand Proverbs 15:22, believing that if all the preachers are saying the same thing, they must be right.

Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed. (Proverbs 15:22 NIV | 84)

Jeremiah and Jesus, and many reformers and martyrs down through the centuries have demonstrated that often, Proverbs 15:22 must be applied on a case-by-case basis.

The prophet’s defense

Then Jeremiah said to all the officials and all the people: “The LORD sent me to prophesy against this house and this city all the things you have heard. Now reform your ways and your actions and obey the LORD your God. Then the LORD will relent and not bring the disaster he has pronounced against you. As for me, I am in your hands; do with me whatever you think is good and right. Be assured, however, that if you put me to death, you will bring the guilt of innocent blood on yourselves and on this city and on those who live in it, for in truth the LORD has sent me to you to speak all these words in your hearing.” (Jeremiah 26:12 – 15 NIV | 84)

What an admirable, classic, and courageous defense:

• Authority: “The Lord sent me…”
• Warning: “…to prophesy against this house and city…”
• Committal: “…do with me whatever you think is good and right…”
• Warning: “…if you put me to death, you will bring the guilt of innocent blood on yourselves and on this city…”
• Authority: “…for in truth the Lord has sent me to you to speak all these words in your hearing.”

His open and honest defense worked, at least for the moment. And in fact, Jeremiah found out he wasn’t the only prophet who had spoken the truth. Some of the elders remembered that a hundred years earlier, the prophet Micah said essentially the same thing as Jeremiah did.

Some of the elders of the land stepped forward and said to the entire assembly of people, “Micah of Moresheth prophesied in the days of Hezekiah king of Judah. He told all the people of Judah, ‘This is what the LORD Almighty says: “ ‘Zion will be plowed like a field, Jerusalem will become a heap of rubble, the temple hill a mound overgrown with thickets.’” (Jeremiah 26:17, 18 NIV | 84)

What’s tragic about this whole incident is that while the people and the rulers recognized Jeremiah’s authority from God, they stubbornly refused to change their ways and obey the Word of the Lord. Had they done so, a great spiritual awakening would have taken place.

A deceived prophet

People and religious leaders are easily deceived and easily deceive God’s people. In Jeremiah 28, we read about a deceptive prophet whose name was Hananiah. This was his message to the people of Judah:

This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: ‘I will break the yoke of the king of Babylon. Within two years I will bring back to this place all the articles of the LORD’s house that Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon removed from here and took to Babylon.” (Jeremiah 28:2, 3 NIV | 84)

Hananiah was just a single false prophet but he represented an entire professional class – a professional class of religious profiteers; men who made money preaching what people wanted to hear. People like this are still in business today, by the way. In Hananiah’s case, he was not a “prosperity preacher” or preacher of “pop psychology” designed to make you happy. No, this false prophet was a prophet of peace – false peace. He was fool. He could see the “handwriting on the wall.” He recognized the awesome power of Babylon. He, like Jeremiah, had seen Nebuchadnezzar march into Jerusalem, take many captives back with him, along with many of the priceless Temple articles. Yet Hananiah publically prophesied a lie: that within two years Babylon’s power would be crushed and the captives returned home. It was a word full of “hope and change” and “sunny ways,” and the people lapped it up.

Jeremiah’s response is curious:

He said, “Amen! May the LORD do so! May the LORD fulfill the words you have prophesied by bringing the articles of the LORD’s house and all the exiles back to this place from Babylon.” (Jeremiah 28:6 NIV | 84)

The true prophet was clever. His response, though curious, made complete sense, for who wouldn’t want the optimistic, positive outcome prophesied by Hananiah? But, the clever response was followed this observation:

But the prophet who prophesies peace will be recognized as one truly sent by the LORD only if his prediction comes true. (Jeremiah 28:9 NIV | 84)

Jeremiah was clever, and he was no fool. He wasn’t born yesterday and he knew how God worked. He loved Judah and the people of Judah, and somewhere deep inside he hoped Hananiah’s words would pan out and be true. But he knew what God had told him. And Hananiah’s actions belied his attitude.

Then the prophet Hananiah took the yoke off the neck of the prophet Jeremiah and broke it, and he said before all the people, “This is what the LORD says: ‘In the same way will I break the yoke of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon off the neck of all the nations within two years.’ ” At this, the prophet Jeremiah went on his way. (Jeremiah 28:10, 11 NIV | 84)

Anybody can say anything, but the proof is in the pudding. And sometimes it’s in history. In the past, the true prophets of God never prophesied good times ahead without emphasizing the responsibility of the people. Yet this was precisely what Hananiah and other false prophets were doing. The true prophets of God always spoke of ethical conduct and how that connected to eternal realities. Jeremiah knew that God dealt with people on a moral basis, not merely on desirable outcomes. The word of a true prophet wasn’t always sunshine and daisies, but a mixture of negative and positive.

God’s word to Hananiah through Jeremiah, though, was all bad:

Then the prophet Jeremiah said to Hananiah the prophet, “Listen, Hananiah! The LORD has not sent you, yet you have persuaded this nation to trust in lies. Therefore, this is what the LORD says: ‘I am about to remove you from the face of the earth. This very year you are going to die, because you have preached rebellion against the LORD.’ ” (Jeremaih 28:15, 16 NIV | 84)

And he did die, just as the Lord’s true prophet had said.

This chapter is an important one. In our world today, there is much talk of peace. Peace is something all people want. But God’s Word, which contains the objective Truth, doesn’t speak of a peaceful world, but of a world filled with wars and rumors of wars until the Lord returns. Any nation can do anything it wants to; treaties may be concocted and signed, but in the end, the Lord’s Word will always come to pass.

 

Jeremiah Was a Prophet, Part 4

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Jeremiah’s nickname was “the weeping prophet” for good reason. His message was a miserable one. Remember when the Lord called him to the prophetic ministry?

They will fight against you but will not overcome you, for I am with you and will rescue you,” declares the Lord. (Jeremiah 1:19. NIV)

The “they” referred to Jeremiah’s people. Not his enemies, but his friends, his family, and his neighbors. “They” would resent Jeremiah’s sermons so much that they would be an almost constant threat to his life. No wonder he would say this:

Why did I ever come out of the womb to see trouble and sorrow and to end my days in shame? (Jeremiah 20:18. NIV)

In case you think Jeremiah was the only prophet who struggled, don’t forget about Jonah’s experience:

Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”  But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?” “It is,” he said. “And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.” (Jonah 4:3, 9. NIV)

And even John the Baptist, while he didn’t want to die, certainly had his doubts when times were rough:

When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” (Matthew 11:2, 3. NIV)

Serving the Lord can be one tough gig. It can be costly. For so long, Jeremiah put up with slander and death threats and plots against his life. Surely he could expect some relief! But none came. The rough patch was getting longer and longer. It didn’t help that his sermons were getting more and more harsh. It got to the point where “the weeping prophet” wondered if he should – or even could – keep it up.

The prophet is a jail-bird, Jer. 20:1 – 6.

Here’s the message that got Jeremiah in trouble with Pashhur:

Jeremiah then returned from Topheth, where the Lord had sent him to prophesy, and stood in the court of the Lord’s temple and said to all the people, “This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: ‘Listen! I am going to bring on this city and all the villages around it every disaster I pronounced against them, because they were stiff-necked and would not listen to my words.’ ”. (Jeremiah 19:14, 15. NIV)

Pashhur was the chief officer of the Temple and he was so outraged at Jeremiah’s sermon, that he got violent and threw him into prison.

When the priest Pashhur son of Immer, the official in charge of the temple of the Lord, heard Jeremiah prophesying these things, he had Jeremiah the prophet beaten and put in the stocks at the Upper Gate of Benjamin at the Lord’s temple. (Jeremiah 20:1, 2. NIV)

If you find it hard to believe that a priest – a man of the cloth; a man of God – would react to a Word from God in such a way, don’t be. God’s Word isn’t always a “good word” and sometimes it can be downright inconvenient. Never underestimate human arrogance. We want what we want and we don’t want anything to get in the way, not even God.

It might be significant that Pashhur, this priest, was an Egyptian.

A night in prison might be enough for some preachers to tone down their rhetoric, but not Jeremiah. He pushed the envelope even further – stretching it to the breaking point.

‘”And you, Pashhur, and all who live in your house will go into exile to Babylon. There you will die and be buried, you and all your friends to whom you have prophesied lies.’ ”. (Jeremiah 20:6. NIV)

So now we know why Pashhur hated Jeremiah so much. Jeremiah’s truthful Word from God was rubbing against Pashur’s sermons of lies. This Egyptian had been telling the people that Egypt would come to help Judah if Babylon should attack.

They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. “Peace, peace,” they say, when there is no peace. (Jeremiah 8:11 NIV)

There’s a high price to pay in being a faithful follower of God, but there’s also a high price to pay in mocking Him. God was going to deal with Pashhur. His name was changed to “Magor-missabib,” meaning, “Terror on every side.” In other words, he would be a terror to himself and all the people who listened to his false prophecies. That was Pashhur’s personal punishment, but that was just the beginning. All of Judah would suffer because of one man’s false prophecies.

For this is what the Lord says: ‘I will make you a terror to yourself and to all your friends; with your own eyes you will see them fall by the sword of their enemies. I will give all Judah into the hands of the king of Babylon, who will carry them away to Babylon or put them to the sword. I will deliver all the wealth of this city into the hands of their enemies—all its products, all its valuables and all the treasures of the kings of Judah. They will take it away as plunder and carry it off to Babylon. (Jeremiah 20:4, 5 NIV)

The prophet is depressed

You deceived me, Lord, and I was deceived ; you overpowered me and prevailed. I am ridiculed all day long; everyone mocks me. Whenever I speak, I cry out proclaiming violence and destruction. So the word of the Lord has brought me insult and reproach all day long. (Jeremiah 20:7, 8. NIV)

These are among the most powerful verses in the book. You and I are centuries removed from Jeremiah’s day. We may not be able to relate to Judah and Babylon and Pashhur, but we can certainly relate to what Jeremiah wrote here. Who hasn’t felt like the prophet felt? Who hasn’t felt like they deserved better from God? One scholar thought so, but he made an important observation:

It is significant that Jeremiah’s inner struggles and persecutions never led him to doubt the reality of his divine commission, and his sense of being overpowered by God never made him lose his own personality.

He was right about that. We all feel like Jeremiah sometimes. But we, like he did, should keep on keeping on, never giving up. We may feel like it sometimes, and we may think less than honorable thoughts about God, but in the end, it’s what we do and how we live that counts.  King David had a similar experience with the Almighty:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish? My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest. (Psalm 22:1, 2. NIV)

Those are terrible things to say about God! But these aren’t:

You who fear the Lord, praise him! All you descendants of Jacob, honor him! Revere him, all you descendants of Israel! For he has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help. (Psalm 22:23, 24. NIV)

Same man, same psalm, different attitude. God knows us and He knows how weak we are. Jeremiah’s experience, like that of David, may have discouraged him and caused him anguish, but he didn’t give up on God. Neither should you. Ever.

But how do you do that? Psalm 42 gives us some help because in it we see some wild mood swings and we see now David worked through his emotions to finally come to the right conclusion:

Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God. (Psalm 42:11. NIV)

Yes, your emotions and your heart will betray you from time to time, but you can’t let them derail your faith. In the end, you have to do what David did – use your God-given ability to reason and think and remember what you know about God. And if you find that hard, just do the right thing in spite of what you may think or feel.

Jeremiah did. But he suffered:

I am the man who has seen affliction by the rod of the Lord’s wrath. He has driven me away and made me walk in darkness rather than light; indeed, he has turned his hand against me again and again, all day long. (Lamentations 3:1 – 3. NIV)

Actually, Jeremiah was wrong. It wasn’t the Lord, it was the people who did these things to Jeremiah. This was a cry of desperation, though. Jeremiah was not only a prophet, but he represented his people before God, and so when God unleashed His punishment on them, the prophet felt it. It’s hard for us to imagine how he must have felt. He was doing everything right, God wasn’t punishing him, but his feelings were real, and like David before him, he worked through his feelings and because he was a believer, he came to the right conclusion:

Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. (Lamentations 3:21 – 23. NIV)

Some of the most beautiful worship songs we sing were borne out of moments of great desperation, like this one. Life is seldom easy, but if we keep our focus on the Lord, no matter what we may think or feel, we, like Jeremiah, will come to the right conclusion. Our great hope arises out of our darkest experiences.

Hope in the midst of hopelessness

But the Lord is with me like a mighty warrior; so my persecutors will stumble and not prevail. They will fail and be thoroughly disgraced; their dishonor will never be forgotten. Lord Almighty, you who examine the righteous and probe the heart and mind, let me see your vengeance on them, for to you I have committed my cause. Sing to the Lord! Give praise to the Lord! He rescues the life of the needy from the hands of the wicked. (Jeremiah 20:11 – 13 NIV)

Most scholars agree that these verses (much of chapter 20) were written just before the fall of Jerusalem. Jeremiah, by this time, had yet to experience the darkest moments of his life. He had been beaten, mocked, imprisoned, harassed, separated from his family, had no friends, no reputation, and his beloved city was on the brink of being overrun by Babylonians and steamrolled to the ground. No wonder he wrote what he wrote in the very next verse:

Cursed be the day I was born! May the day my mother bore me not be blessed! (Jeremiah 20:14 NIV)

Our weeping prophets certainly had his ups and downs, but while his emotions were riding the roller coaster of his life, his spirit was firmly connected to heaven. When Jerusalem finally fell, Jeremiah did not fall with her. The years of trials, loneliness, and solitude had created a faithful servant of God, who had more compassion and empathy than any other prophet. The worst day of his life was the day Jerusalem crumbled but Jeremiah’s faith in God remained intact.

Jeremiah Was a Prophet, Part 3

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Beginning with chapter 17:19, the prophet Jeremiah performs various symbolic acts designed to teach his people certain lessons and elicit certain reactions from them.  These symbolic acts were meant for everybody, citizens and kings alike.

This is what the Lord said to me: “Go and stand at the gate of the people, through which the kings of Judah go in and out; stand also at all the other gates of Jerusalem.  Say to them, ‘Hear the word of the Lord, you kings of Judah and all people of Judah and everyone living in Jerusalem who come through these gates.’”  (Jeremiah 17:19, 20  TNIV)

When you read chapters 17:19 – 20:18, you’ll understand why Jeremiah was not very popular with anybody at this time.  His message was one of doom and gloom, and his pleasure-loving friends didn’t appreciate his candor.

Jeremiah’s visit to the potter’s house was the second symbolic act, with the potter standing in for God.  But this visit took place following the prophet’s admonition to the people to be obedient to God and keep the Sabbath.

“’But if you do not obey me to keep the Sabbath day holy by not carrying any load as you come through the gates of Jerusalem on the Sabbath day, then I will kindle an unquenchable fire in the gates of Jerusalem that will consume her fortresses.’ ”  (Jeremiah 17:27  TNIV)

In spite of the people’s familiarity with God’s command to rest on the Sabbath, they didn’t.  They worked on the day of rest as though it were any other day.  God warned them that such blatant disobedience and materialism must stop or an invading army would bring an end to Jerusalem’s unrelenting greed.   To give you an idea of how little the people thought of God’s threats, here’s what they said to Jeremiah:

They keep saying to me, “Where is the word of the Lord? Let it now be fulfilled!”  (Jeremiah 17:15  TNIV)

You just know that scoffing at the Lord like that won’t result in good things happening to the scoffers!  But God is patient, so He took His prophet to the potter’s house.  It was a visit full of symbolism which the people of the day would have easily understood.  The people of Israel were used to their prophets speaking of God in a variety of ways.  Often God was pictured as a good Shepherd, or a Farmer who tended His vines.  A less familiar metaphor was God as a potter.  Isaiah wrote this:

No one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us and have given us over to our sins.  Yet you, Lord, are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.  (Isaiah 64:7, 8  TNIV) 

Whenever the Bible uses the God-as-a-potter metaphor, two things could be going on: (a) judgment on the wicked, or (b) restoration of the righteous. When God renders His judgment, He destroys a clay pot, sometimes by smashing it on the ground:

You will break them with a rod of iron ; you will dash them to pieces like pottery.  (Psalm 2:9  TNIV)

But, when God displays His restoration, it comes by way of creating a pot of clay. In Jeremiah 18, God the Potter is constructive and purposeful. He’s at His potter’s wheel, making a vessel.

Go down to the potter’s house, and there I will give you my message.”  So I went down to the potter’s house, and I saw him working at the wheel.  But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him.”  (Jeremiah 18:2 – 4  TNIV)

The people of Jeremiah’s day paid a certain amount of lip service to God’s Word, but that was about it.  The way they treated the Sabbath was just the tip of the iceberg of their rampant disobedience.  They were living as though God were irrelevant.  So the image of the potter working on the pot was startling.  It showed how involved in the lives of His people God really was.  Most people today have a lot in common with the ancient Israelites, acknowledging a belief in God yet living as though He really doesn’t exist.  How surprised these people will be when they discover how intently interested God is in how they are living their day-to-day lives.  As the potter noticed how a pot he was working on was marred or deformed, so God notices when people’s lives are similarly marred and deformed by sin.

The encouraging part of the visit was that the potter didn’t toss out the marred pot, preferring to work on it some more, hoping to make a useful pot out it.  The symbolism can’t be missed, and God’s interpretation leaves no room for doubt.  First, He was absolutely sovereign over the nation of Israel:

He said, “Can I not do with you, house of Israel, as this potter does?” declares the Lord. “Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, house of Israel.”  (Jeremiah 18:6  TNIV)

The doctrine of God’s sovereignty isn’t a popular one among most people.  Non-Christians hate it because they prefer the illusion that they are in charge of their lives; that they shape their own destinies.  To acknowledge the sovereignty of God would mean that He’s real and they’re not in charge of anything.  And Christians seem to have a love/hate relationship with God’s sovereignty.  We like it when it appears to work for us.  Just think about the many times during a rough patch in your life you remembered this verse:

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. But God’s sovereignty isn’t passive, it’s active.  (Romans 8:28 TNIV)

But we hate it when what we want to do conflicts with what God wants us to do.  When our will bumps up against God’s will like that, we hate God’s sovereignty and do our best to ignore it by finding a work-around – a clever way to justify our sin – to soothe our guilty consciences.  However, God’s sovereignty isn’t passive, it’s active.  Notice –

If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned.  (Jeremiah 18:7, 8  TNIV)

God not only “announces,” but He “inflicts.”  That’s a very active sovereignty!

Second, God’s sovereignty doesn’t eliminate man’s free will – his ability to choose righteousness.  Yes, God can and often will “uproot,” “tear down,” and “destroy,” but if a man chooses to repent, then God will “relent.”  In the case of Israel, proclamations of judgment or blessing could be completely reversed depending on the people’s actions.

Our lessons from Jeremiah’s visit to the potter’s house

Jeremiah’s visit to the potter’s house and its attendant meaning for Israel means it has nothing to do with us, except for the lessons we, as 21st century Christians may draw from it.  In all, there are probably four lessons we can take away from Jeremiah 18.

Lesson One:  We are not pots!

That’s right.  You and I are not pots, we’re clay.  You may say that pots are made of clay, and you’d be correct.  But, a pot is the finished product; it’s clay that has been fixed into a certain shape for a certain purpose.  But you aren’t dead yet, and God isn’t finished with you yet.  God is still working on you, shaping and molding your character, gradually re-creating you into the image of His Son.

That brings up another character of clay:  It’s malleable while a pot is breakable.  As a Christian, you’re not fragile, though at times you may think you are.  You’re pliable.  God is able to work with you and work on you to make into what He wants you to become.

Lesson Two:  Life is rough

There’s a verse in Isaiah that gives us the tiniest of glimpses into the life of clay.  It’s not pretty.

“I have stirred up one from the north, and he comes—one from the rising sun who calls on my name. He treads on rulers as if they were mortar, as if he were a potter treading the clay.”  (Isaiah 41:25  TNIV)

Did you see what the potter does to the clay?  He “treads it.”  That’s right, the potter would throw the clay onto the hard ground and then walk all over it.  Then he took it into his strong hands, mixing it with water to soften it up.  After that, he slapped that hunk of clay onto his wheel, spinning it ‘round and ‘round, using his fingers and palms to squeeze and kneed that clay into some kind of vessel.

Once the newly formed clay pot had hardened in the sun, it was placed into a blazing hot kiln.  How blazing hot?  How about 2700 degrees?  And there it would sit, spinning ‘round again until that clay-turned-pot was baked through.

Your life isn’t so different from that of a hunk of clay.  Your life isn’t an easy one.  Nobody’s is.  We encounter all kinds of difficulties and hardships, many times they aren’t even of our own making!  Job experienced this and he lived to tell about it:

But he knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold.  (Job 23:10  TNIV)

Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him…  (Job 13:15  TNIV)

Job was a man who got what God’s sovereignty was all about!  Sometimes he wasn’t happy about it, but he accepted it.  Do you?  When you face illness or abandonment or discouragement, how to you deal with it?  James tells us how:

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.  (James 1:2, 3  TNIV)

Ellen White said this:

The fact that we are called upon to endure trial shows that the Lord Jesus sees in us something precious which He desires to develop…. He does not cast worthless stones into His furnace. It is valuable ore that He refines.

She was right.

Lesson Three:  The hotter the furnace, the stronger the pot

Fancy, delicate, brightly colored earthenware chips easily if it is baked at lower temperatures. These kinds of dishes have none of the inner strength needed to withstand getting knocked about in the kitchen sink. Stoneware, on the other hand, is much stronger because it is baked in a furnace nearly twice as hot as that for earthenware. But porcelain, baked between 2400 and 2700 degrees Fahrenheit, is the finest and most expensive type of pottery.

But God is not some kind of crazy potter. He knows His clay and He has a purpose for each piece of clay.  In the potter’s house, not every pot was fine china.  Not every pot was made for daily use, some were made for decorative purposes.  So it is for the believer.  We are tested and tried for a purpose, and sometimes only God knows what that purpose is or will be.  Regardless of what we face in life, we know this:

No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to us all. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.  (1 Corinthians 10:13  TNIV)

Lesson Four:  We need the Holy Spirit!

Clay needs water if it is to be made into a useful article, like a pot.  The water mixed in with clay allows the clay to bond to itself.  Without water, all you have is dust.  Look at what Jesus said in John 7:37 – 39:

On the last and greatest day of the festival, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink.  Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.”  By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified.  (TNIV)

The Holy Spirit will help us during our time as clay.  He will give us wisdom and strength and He will help us keep the events of our lives in perspective.  And then there’s this:

Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.  (Ephesians 4:3  TNIV)

The church isn’t made up of a bunch of dust particles, blowing around, making a mess.  We’re like clay held together by water!  We believers are bound together by the water of God’s Holy Spirit.

Such are the lessons take from one prophet’s visit to the potter’s house.

Jeremiah Was a Prophet, Part 2

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We can learn a lot from Jeremiah and his writings. Sure he lived in ancient times, but his words are just as relevant today as they were then. The names have changed, the nations have changed, and the times have changed, but man hasn’t. Looking at the actions of the Israelites, we see distorted previews of ourselves. We who enjoy the blessings of the Lord through a relationship with Jesus Christ aren’t too far removed from the Hebrews of old, who enjoyed the blessings of God yet continuously strayed from Him. Their backsliding serves as a stark, blatant warning to Christians today who think they can serve God and themselves at the same time; live with one foot in the Kingdom and one foot in the world. We can’t, any more than Jeremiah’s could.

God’s people forsake Him, Jeremiah 2:4 – 13; 22:1 – 5

Scholars seem pretty sure that what Jeremiah wrote in chapters 2 – 6 was written during the reign of Josiah and during the great religious revival that took place during those years. All the prophecies and sermons Jeremiah delivered during this time showed that in spite of outward appearances, he saw a very deep-seated problem with his people. Some of his messages seem to be addressed to the northern kingdom of Israel, others to his own kingdom of Judah, but the theme is the same, and expressed best in verse two of chapter two –

This is what the Lord says: “‘I remember the devotion of your youth, how as a bride you loved me and followed me through the wilderness, through a land not sown.’” (Jeremiah 2:2 NIV)

Ah yes, even God had His “good old days.” To Him, the “good old days” were the days when His people actually loved Him and depended on Him. It’s a little odd that God’s “good old days” were actually years of wandering and privation in the wilderness for Israel. The best years, in God’s estimation, were the years when Israel was so bad off they depended on Him for everything, even their daily bread, or manna. It was in the desert that they were, more or less, forced to rely on Him for everything, and He had no rivals for their affection and devotion.

It’s like that, more often than not for Christians. We are closest to God, not when our bank accounts and pantries are full to overflowing, but when we feel hard pressed from all sides because it is during those times that we, just like the Israelites before us, are forced to look to God and trust Him. How much easier would be for us is we just trusted Him all the time, not just during the hard times!

“’Israel was holy to the Lord, the firstfruits of his harvest; all who devoured her were held guilty, and disaster overtook them,’” declares the Lord. (Jeremiah 2:3 NIV)

In those “good old days” under the leadership of Moses, Israel was holy. Israel was holy, not because they were a nation of Mother Theresa’s or of pious old people, but because she belonged completely and unreservedly to Him. That’s the definition of holiness, by the way. It’s not your actions that make you holy, it’s that you (like Israel before you) have been “separated” from the rest of the population to God for a sacred purpose. Because of that relationship, of course, your actions will necessarily change. But the separation comes first, not the other way around.

That idyllic relationship didn’t last long at all.

“What fault did your ancestors find in me, that they strayed so far from me? They followed worthless idols and became worthless themselves. (Jeremiah 2:5 NIV)

Under the covenant relationship, Israel had it good; they enjoyed God’s richest blessings, including His divine, supernatural protection. But something happened to disrupt that relationship. It was a covenant relationship, which may not make a lot of sense to us, but we can understand a marriage covenant. It’s the same idea. Israel broke faith with God by running after other gods – they were committing spiritual adultery. The real stinging indictment in verse five points to the fault of Israel, not with God. God did nothing wrong. They did. Israel left Him; Israel strayed; Israel broke the covenant and because of that, Israel suffered: they became as worthless as the idols they worshipped.

“My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.” (Jeremiah 2:13 NIV)

Jeremiah was a prophet, but here he sounds more like a lawyer, summing up his charges: Judah’s sin was a two-pronged one: they rejected the truth and accepted error. The pagan nations surrounding them had committed only one sin – idolatry, but Judah had far exceeded them in disobedience as they actively rebelled against God and renounced His word in order to serve false, made up gods that didn’t even exist.

The metaphor of cisterns is all the more powerful when you take into consideration that Palestine is an arid, desert land. How rational would it be for people to stray from a source of water that provides free, flowing, fresh water to an area of the desert where there is no water? That’s what the Israelites had done by straying from God, and it was irrational, just like all sin is irrational.

Cruising ahead to chapter 22, the prophet makes a case about the leadership of Judah.

This is what the Lord says: “Go down to the palace of the king of Judah and proclaim this message there…” (Jeremiah 22:1 NIV)

The book of Jeremiah isn’t always chronological, but thematic. Jeremiah’s sermons and prophecies aren’t necessarily grouped by dates but by themes. So, jumping ahead to chapter 22, we read some interesting things that concerned the prophet. Back in chapter 32 he railed against the nation as a whole. But you can’t separate a nation from those who lead it. A nation rises or sinks to the level of those who are leading it, be they kings, prime ministers, or presidents. Our prophet wrote these words during the reign of King Zedekiah, the last king of Judah. But who was he, and where did he come from?

When Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian army invaded Judah in 597, they took King Jehoiachin captive along with some 10,000 of the land’s best and brightest. The youngest son of Josiah, a loser by the name of Mattaniah, was placed on the throne by Nebuchadnezzar, who changed the kid’s name to Zedekiah. Think about that for a minute. Why would Nebuchadnezzar do that? It’s because he had no interest in killing people. All he wanted was to build his empire by accumulating the property of other nations, and by putting kings of his choice on their thrones. That way he would be the global ruler over all manner of nations and kingdoms. Judah could have lived at peace with Neduchadnezzar, except Zedekiah was loyal to Nebuchadnezzar in word only and eventually joined in a revolt against Babylon. This was the political cause for the Babylonian invasion of Judah, which led to Jerusalem’s fall. But the spiritual cause of the fall of Judah is the subject of the whole book of Jeremiah: the rebelliousness of God’s people. Jeremiah’s people couldn’t be loyal to God, even though being loyal to Him would have meant eternal blessings, and they couldn’t even be loyal to Nebuchadnezzar, which would have meant temporal blessings! These people were rotten to the very core of their being. The root of rebellion ran so deep it was part of their national fabric.

Jeremiah’s word to Zedekiah was a simple one:

Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place. (Jeremiah 22:3 NIV)

Sure, he was a puppet king, but Zedekiah was still king of a kingdom, as shrinking as it was. And he had a responsibility to care for his people and treat his citizens rightly and justly. Obviously, the kings of Judah were notorious for taking advantage of their people. That displeased God. The very least the king should have treated his people with respect.

There were four groups of people that King Zedekiah needed to protect. First, “the one who has been robbed.” That’s a large group. People got robbed all the time, and justice needed to be exercised on their behalf. But people during this time had been robbed by the Babylonians, especially robbed of their sons, if they were talented and smart. The second group, “the fatherless,” were men of Judah who had been killed in battle or taken captive, who left families behind that needed to be looked after, not taken advantage of. Another group was “the widow.” Her property didn’t need to be taken by the government as tax payments or taken by other family members. Widows needed to treated fairly and justly. But who were these foreigners? Modern politicians want us to believe they were illegal aliens, migrant workers, or refugees. During Jeremiah’s time, there were many kinds of foreigners in Judah, including people from Babylon who had been relocated to Judah just as some people from Judah had been relocated to other nations within the greater Babylonian empire. Those strangers needed to be protected and not taken advantage of or persecuted. The leaders of Judah, especially King Zedekiah, would have been blessed and Judah would have prospered if they had done what Jeremiah had told them to do. But, even as Jeremiah told them what to do, he also indicated that the die had been cast –

“People from many nations will pass by this city and will ask one another, ‘Why has the Lord done such a thing to this great city?’ And the answer will be: ‘Because they have forsaken the covenant of the Lord their God and have worshiped and served other gods.’” (Jeremiah 22:8, 9 NIV)

God’s call to return

The end was in sight, but God was still interested in the souls of His people. Ultimately, the Israelites would be vindicated, but until then, only judgment was coming. In the midst of judgment, though, God was calling His people to return to Him.

“Return, faithless people,” declares the Lord, “for I am your husband. I will choose you—one from a town and two from a clan—and bring you to Zion. Then I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will lead you with knowledge and understanding.” (Jeremiah 3:14, 15 NIV)

God always wants “faithless” people to return to Him. The “faithless,” or “backsliders,” refer to both Israel and Judah. God has plans for His people. God is sure that His people will learn their lesson and in time they will be ready to follow Him and serve Him. He said as much in 29:10 – 11 –

This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

But it’s not just the Israelites who God has plans for. He has plans for all His people, from all time, from any nation.

And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Ephesians 2:6 – 10 NIV)

Jeremiah Was a Prophet, Part 1

PicsArt_07-27-08.15.35
The Old Testament prophets were a strange lot. They had to be. Life was hard enough back then, but add into the mix having to preach messages that put you on the wrong side of most people, and you’ve got men with few friends and fewer supporters. Here’s a very brief description of the last Old Testament prophet, John the Baptist:

John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. (Matthew 3:4. TNIV)

But no Old Testament prophet is so misunderstood as Jeremiah. What most Christians know about Jeremiah they know from sound bites. He was “the weeping prophet.” He was “temperamental and neurotic.” But if that’s all you know about him, you’ve missed the essence of Jeremiah. He was, in fact, a prophet of hope.

He messages were hard but not unique to him. Jeremiah’s messages of warning were really restatements of what his predecessors had preached; they were messages of the sure final doom of the nation he loved so much, yet he was able to see beyond the coming judgment to a new and better day. Reading the sermons of Jeremiah, I can’t help but think of the words of Mote’s classic hymn, The Solid Rock:

When darkness hides his lovely face,
I rest on his unchanging grace,
In every high and stormy gale,
My anchor holds within the veil.

No matter how dark, depressing, and distressing his circumstances had become, Jeremiah was absolutely convinced that there was a light just ahead. His was not an empty hope, but a hope built on his faith in God and God’s promises.

People who are filled with confidence in themselves and their own abilities worship at the altar of “the god of immediate success” and tend to avoid reading Jeremiah. Their immaturity forbids them reading what a realist wrote. And yet, Jeremiah stands today as the greatest figure of his generation. He wasn’t appreciated back then, but his messages resonate with a new generation of believer, looking for the hope Jeremiah was convinced of that is so needed today.

Jeremiah the prophet began his ministry around 627 BC and continued for some 40 years until his nation dissolved around him in 586 BC. He lasted through the final five kings of Judah, and while Isaiah also preached during the reigns of a number of kings, Jeremiah was never welcomed anywhere near the royal courts as Isaiah was.

God knows whom He calls

The message the prophet was never some kind of nebulous theory, a figment of his over-active and deranged imagination, but rather the prophet’s message came out of the history of his time. Jeremiah was a real man who lived during a real time in history. The opening words of Jeremiah’s book of prophecy nail down this man’s history:

The words of Jeremiah son of Hilkiah, one of the priests at Anathoth in the territory of Benjamin. The word of the Lord came to him in the thirteenth year of the reign of Josiah son of Amon king of Judah, and through the reign of Jehoiakim son of Josiah king of Judah, down to the fifth month of the eleventh year of Zedekiah son of Josiah king of Judah, when the people of Jerusalem went into exile. (Jeremiah 1:1 – 3 TNIV)

Jeremiah was born in a town about three miles northeast of Jerusalem. His father was a priest, and we may be sure Hilkiah had high hopes that his son would follow in his priestly footsteps. He didn’t. Jeremiah, whose name means “Jah is high” or “Whom Jah appoints” would, instead, become one of those weirdo prophets.

Jeremiah was a young man when he began his ministry in the 13th year of Josiah’s reign. His years of ministry occurred during a tumultuous time in history for the Jews. There were great social and political upheavals going on which Jeremiah witnessed firsthand. From Judah’s last righteous King (Josiah) to its last actual King (Zedekiah), Jeremiah lived long enough to experience a glorious revival and to witness Jerusalem’s utter destruction by Nebuchadnezzar and Babylon. This latter event came as no surprise to the citizens of Judah, as Jeremiah warned them for decades the day was coming because of their stubborn obsession with idolatry.

This prophet was a man for his times. Just a quick survey of the kings he ministered under will give you an idea of Jeremiah’s temperament. Josiah, the first king mentioned, came to power at eight years of age! At that time, Judah had fallen so far from God that there was not a single copy of the Law in the land. And yet, when he was 26 years old, Josiah began a Temple reconstruction project. The high priest at that time –  Hilkiah – found a copy of the Law hidden away in the rubble of the Temple! When the young king read it, he was overcome with fear and conviction and instituted a number of religious reforms that led Judah into an incredible spiritual revival that lasted until Josiah left the throne.

In spite of that, Josiah entered into a deal with the devil, specifically, Josiah got involved in the convoluted world of international politics and went to war against Neco, the Egyptian King. Jeremiah did his best to dissuade Josiah from this course of action, but Josiah was determined. Sadly, this godly King was killed in battle and the army of Judah trounced. Jehoahaz, Josiah’s third son, was chosen to be king. Judah quickly degenerated to a mere vassal to Egypt. Jehoahaz managed to hang on to the throne for three months before Neco had him deported to Egypt.

Another son of Josiah, Jehoiakim, was chosen to replace Jehoahaz. Jehoiakim was one evil king. He was greedy, dishonest, and treated his people mercilessly. During his reign, Babylon defeated Egypt in battle, and they soon took notice of Judah. It was during Jehoiakim’s reign that Nebuchadnezzar first invaded Judah. It was then that Daniel and the best and brightest of Hebrew children were taken captive back to Babylon. King Jehoiakim tried to have Jeremiah killed but was unsuccessful. He sat on the throne for eleven years, and was eventually taken by Nebuchadnezzar captive during a failed revolt against Babylon.

Jehoiakim’s son, Jehoiachin, succeeded his father. After only three months the mighty Babylonian army came and carried him off to Babylon. It was during this invasion that Ezekiel, another prophet, was taken captive as well. Ezekiel lived in exile for some 40 years. He never saw Judah again, dying in exile.

Zedekiah was Judah’s final king. He ruled for eleven years, but by then Judah was literally falling apart. Jeremiah had given Zedekiah some sound advice, which the king disregarded. Instead of living in peace with his Babylonian overlords, Zedekiah joined in a doomed rebellion against them. Nebuchadnezzar, by this time, had no more patience with the Hebrews and in a final siege against Jerusalem which last two years, he breached the walls and entered the city only to find its citizens starving and dying. With no more resistance, the forces of Babylon destroyed the Temple and much of the city. Jerusalem was left almost empty and decimated.

This was what the world was like when Jeremiah was ministering. Martin Luther observed:

Next to faith this is the highest art – to be content with the calling in which God has placed you.

Jeremiah was called to preach at a horrible time in history. But he kept on, never stopping, and fulfilled God’s calling.

The word of the Lord came to me, saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations. “. (Jeremiah 1:4, 5 TNIV)

Jeremiah was probably in his late teens or very early 20’s when the Lord spoke these words to him. Verse 5 is really a phenomenal verse for a couple of reasons. First, it says God actually knows us. Jeremiah isn’t unique, God knows all people this well. That’s either very comforting or terrifying depending on your spiritual state! There’s just no way to misinterpret what God is saying here. He KNOWS people. Nothing is hid from Him. That’s why this is such a powerful verse for those of us who view abortion as an abomination. When an unborn child is aborted, regardless of when, a person is being killed – a person God knows personally. But, second, we can see how well God knows people; His knowledge isn’t just passive. In the case of Jeremiah (and others mentioned in the Bible), God had definite plans in store for him. The unborn Jeremiah was “set apart” for a very specific task: to be a prophet. Theologically, this “setting apart” by God is how the Old Testament views sanctification. For a person or even a nation to be “holy” means that God had chosen them to be His own to be used for His purposes. In the case of Jeremiah, God had chosen him for a very specific purpose.

God provides the message

Ah, Sovereign Lord,” I said, “I do not know how to speak; I am too young.” But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am too young.’ You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you,” declares the Lord. (Jeremiah 1:6 – 8 TNIV)

God commanded him to be a prophet, but Jeremiah was worried. He was young. He felt completely under qualified. But whom God calls, God equips. The Lord didn’t care about Jeremiah’s age or his inexperience. He promised to be with the prophet and to protect him. The Lord’s personal and abiding presence would be forever accompany Jeremiah.

This exchange reminds us of another conversation:

Moses said to the Lord, “Pardon your servant, Lord. I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue.” The Lord said to him, “Who gave human beings their mouths? Who makes them deaf or mute? Who gives them sight or makes them blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go; I will help you speak and will teach you what to say.”. (Exodus 4:10 – 12 TNIV)

We really should learn to relax and stop being so self-centered and live more God-centered lives. Nothing is impossible for God! God always implements His own plans.

Then the Lord reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, “I have put my words in your mouth.” (Jeremiah 1:9 TNIV)

That’s the essence of prophecy; a person speaking God’s word. When a Christian tries to speak using his own words – or, as we might also say, using his own talents and abilities – his message must necessarily be suspect. Remember what James wrote:

The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by human beings… (James 3:6, 7 TNIV)

The true prophet; God’s genuine ministers, will be like Moses and Jeremiah and be humble enough to realize their shortcomings. Paul did. And that’s why he wrote this:

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. ” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:9, 10 TNIV)

That’s not an insignificant sentence of self-realization: “When I am weak, then I am strong.” That’s because when a person finally realizes their genuine weaknesses or shortcomings, he will finally start trusting in God. Self confidence is a wonderful thing, but it can work against the Christian unless self confidence is viewed as having confidence in your position in God.

God’s message to the people through Jeremiah was a depressing one. There was no “light at the end of the tunnel.” The die had been cast and there was no way to avoid the coming judgment. This was Jeremiah’s message. Jeremiah was given the job nobody would have applied for. But even though the message was a tough one, God consoled His prophet with this:

Get yourself ready! Stand up and say to them whatever I command you. Do not be terrified by them, or I will terrify you before them.” (Jeremiah 1:17 TNIV)

 


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