Random Studies in Ezekiel, Part 5

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Even though Ezekiel 24 and 25 form a continuous message, there is a distinct change in tone and topic from one chapter to the next. Just look at how each chapter begins:

In the ninth year, in the tenth month on the tenth day, the word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, record this date, this very date, because the king of Babylon has laid siege to Jerusalem this very day. (Ezekiel 24:1-2 | NIV84)

The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, set your face against the Ammonites and prophesy against them.” (Ezekiel 25:1-2 | NIV84)

The none too subtle change is this: The first 24 chapters of the book contain prophecies and sermons directed at the exiles from Judah now living and working in Babylon, of whom Ezekiel is one. The messages deal with the sinfulness of Judah and Israel and the coming devastating destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar. The overall theme of chapters 1 through 24 is that God will punish His rebellious people by taking away from them the Promised Land and forcing them to live in exile in Babylon for 70 years.

The next group of chapters, 25 through 33, deal with nations that surround Judah. A lot of people raise their eyebrows when they read this section of Ezekiel. That God will judge the godless is not surprising, but the reason is. In the backs of our minds, we assume people will be judged because they didn’t accept Christ as Savior. That’s true enough, but here we learn that whole nations will face severe judgement based on other criteria going back to this ancient verse that very few nations take seriously these days:

I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” (Genesis 12:3 | NIV84)

Each of the four nations Ezekiel speaks to historically mistreated Israel and disdained her, but especially now, at this time of her exile. The main theme in these chapters is this: God will be as faithful to punish these nations in keeping with His covenant with Abraham as He was faithful to punish Judah according to His covenant, the Mosaic covenant, with her.

But it gets even more interesting than that. This “judgment of the nations” would begin with the invasion of Babylon and continue until the end times, at which time Judah will possess these nations and the Lord will reign. This very long judgment is viewed as a single judgment which began with Nebuchadnezzar and will end with the second coming of Christ.

In one sense, Nebuchadnezzar is the hinge upon which the door of history swings. The poor, godless warrior never really understood that his actions formed a part of God’s will that continues to unfold to this very day. Joel, a minor prophet, wrote about this “judgement of the nations,” but he sees it as an end-times prophecy:

In those days and at that time, when I restore the fortunes of Judah and Jerusalem, I will gather all nations and bring them down to the Valley of Jehoshaphat. There I will enter into judgment against them concerning my inheritance, my people Israel, for they scattered my people among the nations and divided up my land. They cast lots for my people and traded boys for prostitutes; they sold girls for wine that they might drink. (Joel 3:1-3 | NIV84)

You may wonder why God was and remains so concerned about nations, after all, nations aren’t permanent; they rise and fall; come and go. Here’s the thing that escapes an ego-centric generation: it’s not all about us, as individuals. In our time, we talk a great deal about having a “personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ,” and while that certainly is the basis of our salvation, our “personal God” is also the God all things and all people, whether they acknowledge Him or not. All things – even nations – exist because God allows them to. God’s will for a person or a nation will come to pass whether or not that person or nation co-operates with Him. A nation will be blessed or face certain punishment depending on how it treated it’s people, and especially how it treated God’s people. The judgement of the nations, beginning here in Ezekiel 25 and continuing until our Lord returns, is for the purpose of bringing all nations to the realization that God is who He always said He was: The only true God. As with Judah, judgement will be the only way these other nations could be made to acknowledge this eternal truth.

“Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other. By myself I have sworn, my mouth has uttered in all integrity words that will not be revoked: Before me every knee will bow; by me every tongue will swear. They will say of me, ‘In the Lord alone are righteousness and strength.’ ”All who have raged against him will come to him and be put to shame. But in the Lord all the descendants of Israel will be found righteous and will exult. (Isaiah 45:22c-25 | NIV84)

Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian army would be God’s instruments of judgment upon His people and all these nations. Every one of them would go into exile, as Judah did, for 70 years. Ezekiel wasn’t the only prophet to foresee this. Jeremiah did, too:

This whole country will become a desolate wasteland, and these nations will serve the king of Babylon seventy years. (Jeremiah 25:11 | TNIV)

In Ezekiel’s list of “these nations,” there is one glaring omission: Babylon. This doesn’t mean Nebuchadnezzar and Babylon escape judgment. Not by a long shot. Again, from Jeremiah:

“But when the seventy years are fulfilled, I will punish the king of Babylon and his nation, the land of the Babylonians, for their guilt,” declares the Lord, “and will make it desolate forever. I will bring on that land all the things I have spoken against it, all that are written in this book and prophesied by Jeremiah against all the nations. They themselves will be enslaved by many nations and great kings; I will repay them according to their deeds and the work of their hands.” (Jeremiah 25:12 – 14 | TNIV)

Against Ammon, 25:1 – 7

Ammon wasn’t more evil than any other pagan nation was, but somebody had to be mentioned first, so Ezekiel began this group of people, of whom we know next to nothing. This nation would be punished because she rejoiced and gloated over the profaning of the Temple and the destruction of Judah.

Say to them, ‘Hear the word of the Sovereign Lord. This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Because you said “Aha!” over my sanctuary when it was desecrated and over the land of Israel when it was laid waste and over the people of Judah when they went into exile…. (Ezekiel 25:3 | NIV84)

Essentially, Ammon was being accused by God of gloating over the misfortunes of Judah. The Ammonites clapped and stomped and rejoiced over what was going on to the people of Judah and the destruction of their land. The odd-looking word, “aha,” simply means the people chuckled when Nebuchadnezzar finally steam-rolled Jerusalem to the ground.

Their price for mocking God’s people:

…therefore I will stretch out my hand against you and give you as plunder to the nations. I will wipe you out from among the nations and exterminate you from the countries. I will destroy you, and you will know that I am the Lord. (Ezekiel 25:7 | NIV)

Against Moab, 25:8 – 11

Moab was a longtime enemy of Israel, going back to almost the beginning! Here’s God’s charge against them and His punishment:

“This is what the Sovereign Lord says: ‘Because Moab and Seir said, “Look, Judah has become like all the other nations,” therefore I will expose the flank of Moab, beginning at its frontier towns—Beth Jeshimoth , Baal Meon and Kiriathaim—the glory of that land.’” (Ezekiel 25:8, 9 | NIV)

What Moab did was far more severe than it may appear. First of all, Judah was never “like all the other nations.” It was divinely created by God Himself. There was nothing ordinary about Judah. Second, likening Judah to all the other fallen nations was really an insult to God, indicating that God wasn’t strong enough to protect His people. Essentially, Moab was laughing at God.

The punishment leveled at Moab was a manifestation of God’s promise to curse those who curse Israel.

Against Edom, 25:12 – 14

Another longtime enemy of Israel had been Edom. God’s accusation against them was really directed at their attitude of vengeance against Judah. That was an age-old attitude, dating back to the conflict between Jacob (Israel) and Esau (Edom). Edom had forever been resentful and vindictive and jealous of Israel. Their promised destruction would be swift and complete:

…therefore this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I will stretch out my hand against Edom and kill both man and beast. I will lay it waste, and from Teman to Dedan they will fall by the sword. (Ezekiel 25:13 | NIV)

The Minor Prophet Obadiah details the stern judgment against Edom and the city chiseled into the mountainside.

Against the Philistines

“This is what the Sovereign Lord says: ‘Because the Philistines acted in vengeance and took revenge with malice in their hearts, and with ancient hostility sought to destroy Judah, therefore this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am about to stretch out my hand against the Philistines, and I will wipe out the Kerethites and destroy those remaining along the coast. I will carry out great vengeance on them and punish them in my wrath. Then they will know that I am the Lord, when I take vengeance on them. ‘ ” (Ezekiel 25:15 – 17 | NIV)

The destruction of the Philistines was so complete and so literally fulfilled that liberal critics of the Bible find this particular prophecy hard to swallow. But it happened just as God, through Ezekiel, said it would.

Against Tyre and Sidon, 26:1 – 28:26

Tyre and Sidon weren’t nations but seacoast cities. They were long on trade and short compassion. They were merchants who didn’t care about anybody else as long they benefitted materially from their suffering. The end of Tyre serves as a stark example of what happens to a nation that loves money more than God. Arnold Toynbee, historian, believes materialism to be one of the major factors in the fall of nations. Modern America has far more in common with Tyre than we’d care to admit, with our obsession with things and consumerism. Johann Wolfgang Goethe was a German writer who, over 200 years ago, made this observation:

The spirit tends to take to itself a body.

He could have been talking about 21st century America, a nation concerned more about material things than anything else.

Sidon (28:20 – 23), though given a scant four verses, was probably a larger city than Tyre. Its punishment was frightening:

The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, set your face against Sidon; prophesy against her and say: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: “ ‘I am against you, Sidon, and among you I will display my glory. You will know that I am the Lord, when I inflict punishment on you and within you am proved to be holy. I will send a plague upon you and make blood flow in your streets. The slain will fall within you, with the sword against you on every side. Then you will know that I am the Lord. (Ezekiel 28:20 – 23 | NIV)

Both disease and violence would overtake the city. But once again, note the purpose for God’s punishment: “Then you will know that I am the Lord.”

Though Sidon was punished, it was never completely destroyed as was Tyre, which was  located just a few miles away. Sidon exists to this very day; it is a thriving sea port city, while Tyre is completely gone. God has kept His eternal word. Tyre was destroyed and has never been rebuilt, yet after 2500 years, Sidon, though punished, is till here.

Restoration of Israel, 28:24 – 26

“ ‘No longer will the people of Israel have malicious neighbors who are painful briers and sharp thorns. Then they will know that I am the Sovereign Lord. “ ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: When I gather the people of Israel from the nations where they have been scattered, I will be proved holy through them in the sight of the nations. Then they will live in their own land, which I gave to my servant Jacob. They will live there in safety and will build houses and plant vineyards; they will live in safety when I inflict punishment on all their neighbors who maligned them. Then they will know that I am the Lord their God. ‘ ” (Ezekiel 28:24 – 26 | NIV)

 

 

Random Studies in Ezekiel, Part 4

Right after God called Ezekiel to be a prophet, the Lord sequestered Ezekiel in his house and, amazingly, the newly minted prophet was not allowed to speak a word:

Then the Spirit came into me and raised me to my feet. He spoke to me and said: “Go, shut yourself inside your house. And you, son of man, they will tie with ropes; you will be bound so that you cannot go out among the people. I will make your tongue stick to the roof of your mouth so that you will be silent and unable to rebuke them, though they are a rebellious house. (Ezekiel 3:24 – 26 | NIV84)

What’s the deal with that? Why would God call Ezekiel to speak His Word, yet shut him up and shut him away from the people he was supposed to preach to? This section is really still part of Ezekiel’s call from his role as a priest to his new role as a prophet. It would be a difficult transition for the son of man to make. As a priest, Ezekiel would have had a series to duties to perform on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis. His was a ministry of repetition. But that would all change. Now, Ezekiel would have to learn how to continually submit to the God’s Word. The prophetic ministry was not a repetitive one; from now on, he would never act on his own but would only appear in public when God wanted him to and he would only speak those words God moved him to say. And lastly, he lost the ability to speak.

Reading that paragraph, we realize that there is a co-operation between God and man going on here. Ezekiel was told by God to seclude himself in the house, and Ezekiel complied. He willingly went along with the strange request. But then notice the use of the word “they.” Somebody will tie Ezekiel up. The “they” likely refers to the prophet’s family or friends. Being bound symbolized Ezekiel’s lifelong commitment to his new ministry. And then the Lord stopped Ezekiel from speaking.

• Ezekiel went along with God’s command;
• Ezekiel asked others to tie him up;
• God miraculously shut Ezekiel up.

The work of the Lord involves a co-operation between all the parties involved. Then there’s this fascinating verse that is very telling:

But when I speak to you, I will open your mouth and you shall say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says.’ Whoever will listen let him listen, and whoever will refuse let him refuse; for they are a rebellious house. (Ezekiel 3:27 | NIV84)

Take note of the doctrine of personal responsibility. People are free to accept the word of the Lord or not. God sends out the invitations, but it’s entirely up to those who received the invitation to open it up and accept it or not. God never forces anybody to do anything.

What happened to Ezekiel here is not unimportant for Christians to take notice of and take to heart. We as Christians, even though we know God’s way is the only way, have NO right on our own to criticize or condemn or pass judgment on anybody. We cannot set the standards for people to meet. That’s not our job. Rebuke and reproof are what the Lord does. It is only when people are obviously violating the will of God, and only when the Lord allows us, that we are permitted to speak out for Him against them. To speak up and be critical of others on our own may result in our reputations or even the reputation of the faith being mocked or derided. But if God calls us to speak out against an individual or even an entire culture, then we have no choice. However, everything we do or say must always be on His terms, not ours, and under His authority, not ours.

God in control

From the very beginning of his new ministry, Ezekiel needed to realize that he was no longer calling the shots in his life. God was.

The hand of the LORD was upon me there, and he said to me, “Get up and go out to the plain, and there I will speak to you.” (Ezekiel 3:22 | NIV84)

In that “plain” or valley, Ezekiel once again witnessed the glory of the Lord that had so moved him back in chapter one. He knew that he was in the very presence of the Lord, and once more we read this:

Then the Spirit came into me and raised me to my feet. (Ezekiel 3:24 | NIV84)

We read that phrase, “the Spirit came into me,” numerous times in this book, and it suggests that Ezekiel did not enjoy what all Christians enjoy: The abiding presence of the Lord in our lives. The Holy Spirit came and went with Ezekiel but since Jesus, the Holy Spirit comes and abides in the believer forever.

Also, notice the movement in this verse. Ezekiel was raised to his feet. We in the West view that movement differently than those who live in the East. For a king to invite a subject to stand in his presence meant that he had been accepted and that king was going to “do business” with him.

Prophecy in drama

Ezekiel builds a model!

Chapters 4 – 24 record the opening prophetic salvo of Ezekiel, and it’s directed at Jerusalem. Even though he’s in Babylon, there was free communication between where Ezekiel was and his old home town. At the time the events of these chapters occurred, Jerusalem was still standing; it would be a few years before Nebuchadnezzar rolled in to destroy it in 586 BC. In these prophecies – and they are all prophecies even though they may not look it – are many strange symbolic actions, as well as sermons, all delivered in the Name of God. In these twenty chapters are riddles, allegories, and pantomimes, all used as vehicles for the Word of God.

The first prophecy was a clay model of Nebuchadnezzar’s siege. Yes, a clay model.

Now, son of man, take a clay tablet, put it in front of you and draw the city of Jerusalem on it. Then lay siege to it: Erect siege works against it, build a ramp up to it, set up camps against it and put battering rams around it. Then take an iron pan, place it as an iron wall between you and the city and turn your face toward it. It will be under siege, and you shall besiege it. This will be a sign to the house of Israel.” (Ezekiel 4:1 – 3 | NIV84)

Now, you and I might find this a little odd. Here’s Ezekiel, prophet of God, playing with models. But to the people of the ancient near and middle east, acting out a message was not unusual. Theology of our time has been heavily influenced by many centuries of Plato’s influence of emphasizing highly abstract ideas over concrete actions, like the ones we see Ezekiel taking. Fortunately for us, God was not influenced by Plato. He came to us concretely in the Person of Christ and died on a real Roman cross and rose actually from the grave and ascended literally to Heaven and announced definitely that He would return visibly.

Here, Ezekiel is doing essentially the same thing with his little model. Think of the old Claymation TV shows and you’ll have an idea of what was going on here. Ezekiel probably built this large model in front of his house in the exile village of Tel-Abib. The exiles would have seen it as they passed by and the prophet would have explained what the model represented: The destruction of Jerusalem and the fact that sin cannot go unpunished. That’s really the big picture here; the sins of the city (the sins of the people of Jerusalem) were seen by God, committed against God, and therefore God would deal with those rebellious people. The sheer wickedness of Jerusalem, if you can imagine, didn’t abate with the first exile. It got worse:

Zedekiah was twenty-one years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem eleven years. His mother’s name was Hamutal daughter of Jeremiah; she was from Libnah. He did evil in the eyes of the LORD, just as Jehoiakim had done. It was because of the LORD’s anger that all this happened to Jerusalem and Judah, and in the end he thrust them from his presence. (2 Kings 25:18 – 20 | NIV84)

None of what was about to happen to Jerusalem as portrayed by Ezekiel and his model should have come as a surprise to the exiles or the people who heard about it back home. It was promised by God of they dared broke His covenant.

They will lay siege to all the cities throughout your land until the high fortified walls in which you trust fall down. They will besiege all the cities throughout the land the LORD your God is giving you. Because of the suffering that your enemy will inflict on you during the siege, you will eat the fruit of the womb, the flesh of the sons and daughters the LORD your God has given you. Even the most gentle and sensitive man among you will have no compassion on his own brother or the wife he loves or his surviving children, and he will not give to one of them any of the flesh of his children that he is eating. It will be all he has left because of the suffering your enemy will inflict on you during the siege of all your cities. The most gentle and sensitive woman among you—so sensitive and gentle that she would not venture to touch the ground with the sole of her foot—will begrudge the husband she loves and her own son or daughter the afterbirth from her womb and the children she bears. For she intends to eat them secretly during the siege and in the distress that your enemy will inflict on you in your cities. (Deuteronomy 25:52 – 57 | NIV84)

As Christians, we are not Israel. We aren’t the people whom Ezekiel had in mind when he built his tabletop model. But there are two verses in the New Testament that make it imperative we pay heed to Ezekiel’s words to his people:

Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature d will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. (Galatians 6:7, 8 | NIV84)

That’s right. For us, our enemy isn’t Babylon and Nebuchadnezzar, but the wages of sin – death. Our siege is accomplished by yielding to sin, trapping us. But in our case, we have God’s armor protecting us and He Himself is a strong refuge against it. And, unlike the iron plate that separated Ezekiel from this model of Jerusalem, God will never separate Himself from us.

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written:

“For your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:35 – 39 | NIV84)

Ezekiel bears their sin

If you thought building a model was odd behavior for a serious, grown man to engage in, how about this:

Then lie on your left side and put the sin of the house of Israel upon yourself. You are to bear their sin for the number of days you lie on your side. I have assigned you the same number of days as the years of their sin. So, for 390 days you will bear the sin of the house of Israel. “After you have finished this, lie down again, this time on your right side, and bear the sin of the house of Judah. I have assigned you 40 days, a day for each year. Turn your face toward the siege of Jerusalem and with bared arm prophesy against her. I will tie you up with ropes so that you cannot turn from one side to the other until you have finished the days of your siege.” (Ezekiel 4:4 – 8 | NIV84)

Again, this a drama was acted out to give the people a visual representation of God’s Word. This was a slow, long theatrical prophecy lasting a total of 430 days, 390 of those days representing 390 years of the Northern Kingdom’s punishment for their sin and rebellion and 40 days representing 40 years of Judah’s punishment for their sin. The total number of years – 430 – is significant for a couple of reasons. First, historically, 430 years is the length of time that the Israelites were held in Egypt (Exodus 12:40).

Second, the total of 430 years of punishment for sin looks forward, and is therefore prophetic in nature. It’s a fact that all numbering and dating in the book of Ezekiel begins with the captivity of Jehoiachin in 597 BC; 597 BC is like ground zero for all the dates in Ezekiel. When we number forward 430 years from 597 BC we get to 167 BC (approximately), which is the year the Maccabean revolt began and the Jews finally got back control of the Promised Land – Canaan; for the first time since 597 BC.

Dates and numbers are interesting, but there is a much deeper significance here. By the siege and fall of Jerusalem, both Israel and Judah will be punished for their years of the rebellion and stubbornness. Ezekiel, lying on his side, is the one bearing their sins symbolically, in anticipation of the time when another Son of Man – the divine Son of Man – comes to bear the sins of many on the Cross. Here is a slight glimmer of the vicarious, substitutionary suffering of Jesus Christ.

 

Random Studies in Ezekiel, Part 3

The stunning vision of Ezekiel 1 was a kind of preface to the call of the prophet, which takes up chapters 2 and 3. The Israelites had been living in exile in Babylon for some five years, and God could have called Ezekiel to his prophetic ministry at any time. Why now? That’s a good question that only God can answer with certainty. But one thing is certain: God’s timing is always right. He called Ezekiel from the priesthood to become His prophet at exactly the right time for both Ezekiel and the people to whom he was to bring his prophetic messages from the Lord.

God’s call to serve will come even if your world is rocked and being turned upside down by events and circumstances completely beyond your control. In fact, something I’ve noticed over the years is that when God calls me to do something or go somewhere, it’s at the most inopportune times. But for the believer, God is in charge. And God is always calling people to serve Him. He had a call and a plan for Ezekiel, and He has a call and plan for you and for me, too. However, God is a gentleman. He forces nobody to do anything. It’s completely up to us whether we’re going to work with Him or not. God is always there, though, waiting for us to respond. He was with His people in exile. He never left them. You don’t walk out on a person you love and have a relationship with, do you? Peter thought about this issue, and here’s his conclusion:

the Lord knows how to rescue godly men from trials and to hold the unrighteous for the day of judgment, while continuing their punishment. (2 Peter 2:9 | NIV84)

That’s a verse that, depending on your circumstances, you must take on faith. But it’s true. And through Ezekiel, His people were about to find out how true it is.

Called once

God had called and called and called His people for generations. He warned them for generations to “shape up” or they would be “shipped out.” They didn’t, and they were. It is possible to listen to someone without actually paying attention them. This is especially true of husbands and wives, but I digress. God’s people were the worst, though. If Ezekiel didn’t know that by now, God told Him.

Here was the man’s first call:

He said: “Son of man, I am sending you to the Israelites, to a rebellious nation that has rebelled against me; they and their fathers have been in revolt against me to this very day. The people to whom I am sending you are obstinate and stubborn. Say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says.’ And whether they listen or fail to listen—for they are a rebellious house—they will know that a prophet has been among them. (Ezekiel 2:3 – 5 | NIV84)

They would hear the Word of God proclaimed by Ezekiel, but they wouldn’t pay attention to it. The history of Israel is replete with examples of this. In fact, God’s people did far worse than not pay attention to His Word: They preferred to pay attention to the many false prophets who told them what they wanted to hear. This continued well into the Babylonian Exile. There were all kinds of false prophets running around the Kebar River, telling the exiles that they’d be going home soon. But Ezekiel was being conscripted by God to announce judgment and to call for repentance. That was as unpopular a message during the Exile as there ever was.

God addressed Ezekiel as “son of man.” That’s a bit off-putting for Christians to hear, but the reason He did so was to emphasize Ezekiel’s humanity against His supernatural majesty. Ezekiel was the beneficiary of incredible visions, but he was forever just the “son of man.” For all his sermons and prophecies, Ezekiel was just a guy who responded to God’s call; nothing more.

You could never accuse God of sugar-coating the issue!

And you, son of man, do not be afraid of them or their words. Do not be afraid, though briers and thorns are all around you and you live among scorpions. Do not be afraid of what they say or terrified by them, though they are a rebellious house. (Ezekiel 2:6 | NIV84)

The very fact that God felt it necessary to tell His man, “do not be afraid” tells us that Ezekiel was afraid. And who wouldn’t have been afraid to face such hostile people? What kind of sick person willingly endures the pain of criticism and contempt and hostility every single day? What pastor would want to pastor a church full of people that hated his sermons and wouldn’t give him the time of day? Who wants to experience the loneliness of rejection day after day? But this is exactly what Ezekiel was being called to do. He was being asked to take on a task that most people would hate him for doing. His faithfulness will forever stand as an example and challenge to ours.

Prophet’s preparation

The true spokesman of God will never preach a message to anyone that is impersonal to him. I don’t know a preacher who has never struggled with a sermon or wrestled over it in the quiet of his study before delivering it from behind the pulpit. Any word preached to God’s people must first pass through the heart and soul of its messenger. That was certainly true of Ezekiel. He would speak for God, but first God’s message must become part of him.

Then I looked, and I saw a hand stretched out to me. In it was a scroll, which he unrolled before me. On both sides of it were written words of lament and mourning and woe. And he said to me, “Son of man, eat what is before you, eat this scroll; then go and speak to the house of Israel.” So I opened my mouth, and he gave me the scroll to eat. (Ezekiel 2:9 – 3:2 | NIV84)

We’re not sure what word it was Ezekiel was eating. Of course, we’re reading figurative language here; the man didn’t really ingest scrolls. Some scholars think he was given Jeremiah’s prophecies to “eat,” or perhaps the words he “ate” were new messages Ezekiel would preach. Regardless, we know a couple of things. First, the message(s) came from the Lord. Second, it was a very unpleasant message, containing words of “lament,” “mourning,” and “woe.” As heartbreaking as the Word of the Lord was, Ezekiel had to internalize it; God’s Word had to become part of who he was.

And that’s the way it always is with God’s Word. Ezekiel isn’t unique among believers. We’re all supposed to take God’s Word and internalize it. We’re supposed to read it, and study it, and talk about it, until we live it naturally. The thing is, God’s Word isn’t always very pleasant. It can be difficult and rather hard to take sometimes. But if we want to honor God and if we want to live for Him, then we had better start paying attention to all of God’s Word, not just the bits that talk about love or caring. It’s all important and it all needs to “eaten” by believers. Jesus Himself, the other Son of Man, taught something similar:

It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” (Matthew 4:4 | NIV84)

It is God’s Word that sustains your spirit. But just like the scrolls Ezekiel was given to eat, God’s Word must be undiluted by anyone else’s word. His snack of scrolls was written on the front and back. There was no room for any other ideas, only God’s.

Called again

He then said to me: “Son of man, go now to the house of Israel and speak my words to them.” (Ezekiel 3:4 | NIV84)

God again calls Ezekiel to “the house of Israel,” that might be better rendered, “the family of Israel.” The Israelites and Jews were people with a common ancestry; they descended from the same person, regardless of what tribe they were from. They were Ezekiel’s people; he had functioned as a priest before his people for years. He knew them. He spoke their language. But there’s this:

But the house of Israel is not willing to listen to you because they are not willing to listen to me, for the whole house of Israel is hardened and obstinate. (Ezekiel 3:7 | NIV84)

Familiarity can certainly breed contempt. It did with Ezekiel, and sure did with Jesus! Remember this:

Only in his hometown and in his own house is a prophet without honor.” (Matthew 13:57 | NIV84)

Foreigners might have listened to Ezekiel, but not his own people. As he knew them, so they knew him. He was the priest they’d seen and heard and spoken to for years. In fact, there were probably many Judean priests living and working among the same Exiles in Babylon. In other words, there wasn’t anything special about this fellow, Ezekiel.

Most of us have had the uncomfortable experience of trying to share our faith with a family member. It’s so much easier doing it with a stranger than it is with people that know our past. This is what faced Ezekiel every single day of ministry in Babylon.

Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel; so hear the word I speak and give them warning from me.” (Ezekiel 3:17 | NIV84)

After a week of thinking, God’s call again came to Ezekiel. He would be a watchman to the house of Israel, warning them of the coming judgment. The job of the ancient watchman was to keep a constant watch on the horizon and on the city, observing any dangers which might come near the town the outside or inside. Ezekiel’s main job was to warn the people about the soon-coming judgment of God upon Judah and Jerusalem. It was coming closer; he could see it just over the horizon. Judah and Jerusalem were still there. The region and the city hadn’t been destroyed yet. The people presently in exile were looking forward to going back any day now, per the words of the false prophets. But Ezekiel knew better. He knew that very soon Jerusalem would be reduced to rubble.

His preaching wouldn’t change a thing, but he had to preach the difficult message. If he chose not to preach it, he would be responsible for the coming destruction. The seriousness of his mission was crystal clear.

When I say to a wicked man, ‘You will surely die,’ and you do not warn him or speak out to dissuade him from his evil ways in order to save his life, that wicked man will die for a his sin, and I will hold you accountable for his blood. But if you do warn the wicked man and he does not turn from his wickedness or from his evil ways, he will die for his sin; but you will have saved yourself. (Ezekiel 3:18, 19 | NIV84)

But the coin has two sides, and so did Ezekiel’s message.

Again, when a righteous man turns from his righteousness and does evil, and I put a stumbling block before him, he will die. Since you did not warn him, he will die for his sin. The righteous things he did will not be remembered, and I will hold you accountable for his blood. But if you do warn the righteous man not to sin and he does not sin, he will surely live because he took warning, and you will have saved yourself.” (Ezekiel 3:20, 21 | NIV84)

So Ezekiel was to warn both the unrighteous man and the righteous man.  This study will be continued.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Random Studies in Ezekiel, Part 2

Ezekiel had been a priest in Jerusalem but now he was an exile in Babylon, a result of Nebuchadnezzar’s second siege of Jerusalem in which he and many others had been chosen to participate in the king of Babylon’s “relocation program.” The opening verses of chapter one give us an interesting tidbit of theological information:

In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month on the fifth day, while I was among the exiles by the Kebar River, the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God. On the fifth of the month—it was the fifth year of the exile of King Jehoiachin—the word of the LORD came to Ezekiel the priest, the son of Buzi, by the Kebar
River in the land of the Babylonians. There the hand of the LORD was upon him. (Ezekiel 1:1 – 3 | NIV84)

Nobody except Ezekiel knows what “in the thirtieth year” means. Could he have meant it had been about thirty years since the book of the Law had been found in the wreckage of the Temple, which caused a national revival? Some have suggested it had been thirty years since the last Year of Jubilee. Others believe Ezekiel was referring to his own age. Turning thirty was a big deal for a Jewish male, indicating he had attained maturity. This seems the likeliest meaning, with “the fourth month” telling us it was mid-summer when this soon-to-be-prophet had his breathtaking vision. It was also the fifth year of Jehoiachin’s exile.

Assuming our presuppositions to be correct, Ezekiel had been in exile for some five years before his vision and his call to be the exile’s prophet. That “the heavens were opened” means that nobody else saw what he saw; only Ezekiel was given this rare glimpse of God’s glory.

Daniel was also in Babylon at this time, but he was living and working among the Babylonians, carrying out his duties as a politico in the king’s courts, fulfilling God’s calling on his life. But Ezekiel the priest lived and worked among the Jews, also fulfilling God’s calling on his life. Both men, both devout servants of Jehovah, both doing exactly what God wanted them to do, exactly where He wanted them to do it, for the benefit of His people, the exiles.

Ezekiel must have thought he would live out his years ministering before the Lord and His people. It was what he had been trained to do, after all. And as a priest, he was performing a sacred work for God. Yet, at the age of thirty, everything Ezekiel knew or thought he knew, about his life and calling would change. That God would give such visions under such circumstances shows the extent of His great sovereignty. He needs no earthly Temple in which to give visions! And the fact that “the hand of the Lord was upon him” tells us that it was God who was in charge of Ezekiel, supervising and superintending the events of the man’s life.

Creatures of the night, 1:4 – 14

I looked, and I saw a windstorm coming out of the north—an immense cloud with flashing lightning and surrounded by brilliant light. The center of the fire looked like glowing metal… (Ezekiel 1:4 | NIV84)

The whole thing started with a windstorm out of the north. Here’s a passage that tells us why this statement is so significant:

Do not lift your horns against heaven; do not speak with outstretched neck. No one from the east or the west or from the desert can exalt a man. But it is God who judges: He brings one down, he exalts another. (Psalm 75:5 – 7 | NIV84)

God’s dwelling is many times depicted as being in the north or to the north, the only direction not mentioned in Psalm 75. This was not an ordinary storm; it had something to do with the presence of the Almighty. Unfortunately, it had to do with His judgment.

and in the fire was what looked like four living creatures. In appearance their form was that of a man… (Ezekiel 1:5 | NIV84)

But these were certainly no men, as the prophet’s description proves. It appears they may have been cherubim, a category of angels. They were stationed at the four sides of a supernatural chariot. This was not a UFO. It was not a futuristic mechanical contrivance inhabited by aliens. Ezekiel was simply, to the best of his ability, describing what he saw.

Each of the four creatures had four faces: a man, a lion, an ox, and an eagle. Why these four faces specifically? Some scholars tell us that these were traditionally the four most impressive land animals and air animals. Man, head of all creation, the lion as king of all wild animals, the ox which was the most useful of all domesticated animals, and the eagle as the head of all the birds of the air. So in these four faces – four creatures – is seen all the intelligence, strength, ferocity, and freedom of all creation.

This vision told Ezekiel two things which became evident shortly after he saw it. First, God is about to move; He is about to do something. Second, whatever God is planning, it will happen in Mesopotamia, to the exiles who thought God had forgotten them completely. God hadn’t forgotten His people, and even though the Lord is showing Ezekiel that the forces of Nebuchadnezzar were about to loosed upon what was left of Jerusalem, God was the One in charge of what was going to happen, not the king of Babylon.

Wheels within wheels, 1:15 – 25

As I looked at the living creatures, I saw a wheel on the ground beside each creature with its four faces. This was the appearance and structure of the wheels: They sparkled like chrysolite, and all four looked alike. Each appeared to be made like a wheel intersecting a wheel. As they moved, they would go in any one of the four directions the creatures faced; the wheels did not turn about d as the creatures went. Their rims were high and awesome, and all four rims were full of eyes all around. (Ezekiel 1:15 – 18 | NIV84)

Ezekiel is not seeing a UFO and he is not seeing God. He is seeing a portrayal or a drama of the power, ingenuity, majesty and sovereignty of God. The Bible is correct when it asserts that “no man has seen God at any time.” Moses saw the glory of God, but not the person of God. Man has been forbidden to even make a likeness of God. We don’t even know what the Son of God looked like before He came to us as a man. But there is within every human being a longing to see God. God gave Ezekiel a glimpse of His Person in a way Ezekiel could relate to.

Verse 18 tells us that God is a God who sees all and has a purpose for this planet and universe. It would have been tempting for these exiles to remain dispirited and discouraged, thinking they had been all but abandoned by God. This verse told them the opposite was true. God’s eyes are everywhere; He sees everything. As the “wheels within wheels” moved and progressed, Ezekiel knew God was on the move and He was moving quickly and with purpose.

When the living creatures moved, the wheels beside them moved; and when the living creatures rose from the ground, the wheels also rose. Wherever the spirit would go, they would go, and the wheels would rise along with them, because the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels. (Ezekiel 1:19, 20 | NIV84)

The “wheels” give us a picture of what the ceaseless activity and energy of God looks like. Just like a well-oiled machine are the plans of God, always, relentlessly, and perpetually moving forward.

So far in his vision, Ezekiel has seen dramatized before his eyes the Lord’s judgment. But here the mercy of God is seen by the prophet.

Above the expanse over their heads was what looked like a throne of sapphire, and high above on the throne was a figure like that of a man. I saw that from what appeared to be his waist up he looked like glowing metal, as if full of fire, and that from there down he looked like fire; and brilliant light surrounded him. Like the appearance of a rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day, so was the radiance around him. (Ezekiel 1:26 – 28 | NIV84)

What an incredible scene! Ezekiel saw what was probably the Christ, who will one day come changing judgment into mercy. The inclusion of a “rainbow” means that mercy is on the way, just as the Lord promised to Noah.

His reaction – falling on his face before the Lord – was the only appropriate posture a man could take in the presence of the Lord of the universe. It’s an incredible picture of our holy God. I give Ezekiel credit for staying put and watching it unfold. I probably would have hidden in a cave somewhere.

Throughout the Old Testament, it was common that when man came into the presence of God, they fell face down. Remember Isaiah?

Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.” (Isaiah 6:5 | NIV)

There is nothing else a human being can do in the presence of God. This vision is a barest, sliver of a glimpse of the majestic and awesome glory of the Lord. It is also a picture very similar to the vision given back in Exodus 19 and 24 at the giving of the Mosaic Covenant. How appropriate it was, therefore, that the same manifestation of God be given now, at a time when God was executing the judgments and promises of that very Covenant to the very people with whom it was made.

Ezekiel’s vision of the glory of God is, perhaps, the most profound vision of its kind in the Bible and may well hold the key to all the visions found in Scripture. It’s not insignificant that both Daniel and Ezekiel were busy prophesying about the End Times from Babylon, during the Captivity or Exile of their people. The book of Revelation and even Jesus’ Olivette Discourse, owe much to both the prophecies of Daniel and to the apocalyptic visions of Ezekiel. You and I are living, as it were, in a kind of exile. When we became Christians, we entered the Kingdom of God and became citizens of that Kingdom, even while we are putting in our time on earth. Sometimes we get discouraged and disillusioned as we wait for our Lord to return and establish His spiritual kingdom in reality on earth.  Ezekiel may have experienced what he did and prophesied long ago to people long gone, but his words resonate with the world-weary believer down to this very day.

 

 

 

 

Random Studies in Ezekiel, Part 1

Ask a lot of people about the book of Ezekiel and they will tell you he saw a UFO. Ask most preachers about Ezekiel and they’ll blankly stare at you. It’s just one of those odd books in the Old Testament that gets the short shrift from Bible readers and teachers. There are a ton of reasons for the neglect of Ezekiel. There is the usual reason most people shy away from the prophetic books: history. They know they need to know some history of the ancient Near East, and since most people don’t like history, they never get around to reading the prophets, beyond a chapter here or a verse there. Another reason is that these books are full of strange visions and dreams with statues or creatures with multiple faces. Who can understand crazy things like that? Then there’s Israel or Judah or both. So much of what the prophets wrote don’t have anything to do with us today. Or so we think.

For those and many other reasons, Ezekiel is shunned. But maybe the biggest reason we avoid Ezekiel is that there is verse after verse after verse dealing with God’s judgment, and it all gets so depressing and repetitive after a while, our eyes glaze over. Yet this big book of prophecy is important – important enough for the Holy Spirit to have it included in our Bible. That reason alone makes it imperative for us to at least have a general working knowledge of what the man wrote.

For all the supposed mystery surrounding the book of Ezekiel, the prophet himself gives us a lot of information. For example, we know precisely when he gave his prophecies. Many of them were given between 593 BC and 571 BC, meaning that Ezekiel worked as a prophet for a couple of decades, assuming the “13th year” mentioned in 1:1 refers to Ezekiel’s 13th year as a prophet. Consider these chapter and dates:

Ezekiel 1:2 – 593 BC
Ezekiel 8:1 – 592 BC
Ezekiel 20:1 – 591 BC
Ezekiel 24:1 – 588 BC
Ezekiel 26:1 – 586 BC
Ezekiel 29:1 – 587 BC
Ezekiel 29:17 – 571 BC
Ezekiel 30:20 – 587 BC
Ezekiel 31:1 – 587 BC
Ezekiel 32:1 – 585 BC
Ezekiel 32:17 – 585 BC
Ezekiel 33:21 – 585 BC
Ezekiel 40:1 – 573 BC

That’s more information than most other prophets give us!

And then there’s this: Ezekiel is actually organized! That’s a relief, because usually the prophetic books are notoriously unorganized. Here’s an easy-to-use outline:

Chapters 1 – 24 – Prophecies given before the Fall of Jerusalem
Chapters 25 – 32 – Oracles against foreign powers
Chapters 33 – 39 – There is hope and danger in the future
Chapters 40 – 48 – Vision of the new Temple and Land

And within each of those sections, the prophecies are arranged in order.

The man in history

…the word of the LORD came to Ezekiel the priest, the son of Buzi, by the Kebar River in the land of the Babylonians. There the hand of the LORD was upon him. (Ezekiel 1:3 | NIV84)

That single verse tells us a mouthful about the prophet Ezekiel. First, he was a priest, not a prophet, the son of priest, and he was living by the Kebar River in Babylon. The natural question is, Why is Ezekiel there in Babylon? The answer is found in 2 Kings:

At that time the officers of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon advanced on Jerusalem and laid siege to it, and Nebuchadnezzar himself came up to the city while his officers were besieging it. Jehoiachin king of Judah, his mother, his attendants, his nobles and his officials all surrendered to him. (2 Kings 24:10 – 12 | NIV84)

It was during that particular siege (there were three altogether) that Ezekiel was deported to Babylon. It was during the first siege a few years earlier that Daniel was taken away.

The prophet/priest Ezekiel was a contemporary of both Jeremiah and Daniel, but of course by now Jeremiah was a very old man, nearing the end of his prophetic ministry. He never went into Babylon; he remained in what was left of Judah until he was taken to Egypt. During Ezekiel’s time of ministry to the Jews in Babylon, Jeremiah was ministering to the Jewish remnant now living in Egypt. As for Daniel, he was taken as a boy into the court of Babylon and in time he became a prime minister. God certainly has his people in the unlikeliest places!

So Ezekiel eventually settled among the Jewish exiles that had been relocated by the great canal that came off the Euphrates River, several miles from Babylon proper. It was here that Ezekiel ministered.

It’s very interesting to compare the opening verses of a Psalm that was written during this time to the first verse of Ezekiel:

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” (Psalm 137:1 – 3 | NIV84)

In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month on the fifth day, while I was among the exiles by the Kebar River, the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God. (Ezekiel 1:1 | NIV)

That’s yet another startling contrast in the Bible, which is a book full of contrasts. The exiles were a depressed and discouraged lot, so much so they hung up their musical instruments, choosing to not worship God, hopeing to avoid the mockery and jeering of the locals. But at the same time, we have Ezekiel, having incredible visions from God. Very often the truly faithful believer will stand alone, separate, at least in experience, from his fellows.

These three prophets, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel each had a ministry to distinct groups of people, but as far as we know, they never met each other. We do know that Daniel was acquainted with the prophecies of Jeremiah, and it is likely that Ezekiel had a passing familiarity with him, but their paths never crossed. Each man was faithfully serving God where God had put him: Jeremiah in a nation in decline, living among a remnant in a pagan land; Daniel in the courts of a pagan nation, never visiting his people in exile yet caring greatly for them; and Ezekiel among exiles in Babylon.

Major themes

Ezekiel wrote a huge book, full of obvious themes and, we might call them, topics. Here is a handful:

• God’s word is absolutely dependable and reliable.

The proud Jew found it impossible to conceive that their nation; that Jerusalem would ever fall to foreign conquest. In the first 24 chapters, Ezekiel preached over and over and over that it would be destroyed.

Therefore this is what the Sovereign LORD says: I myself am against you, Jerusalem, and I will inflict punishment on you in the sight of the nations. Because of all your detestable idols, I will do to you what I have never done before and will never do again. Therefore in your midst fathers will eat their children, and children will eat their fathers. I will inflict punishment on you and will scatter all your survivors to the winds. (Ezekiel 4:8 – 10 | NIV84)

And so the prophet drones on for 24 chapters; incessantly and persistently trying to convince a stiff-necked and rebellious people that the end is near. He had it tough, as most prophets did.

The people to whom I am sending you are obstinate and stubborn. Say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says.’ And whether they listen or fail to listen—for they are a rebellious house—they will know that a prophet has been among them. And you, son of man, do not be afraid of them or their words. Do not be afraid, though briers and thorns are all around you and you live among scorpions. Do not be afraid of what they say or terrified by them, though they are a rebellious house. You must speak my words to them, whether they listen or fail to listen, for they are rebellious. (Ezekiel 2:4 – 7 | NIV84)

But Jerusalem did fall, Ezekiel was vindicated, as was the veracity of the Word of God.

That wasn’t the end of the matter, though. Once in exile, the people were barraged by all manner of false prophets proclaiming that their exile would be brief and that they would be going home any day now. Poor Ezekiel had to break the news to them that generations would pass before they would go home. He was right again, and 70 years later the exiles finally returned to Jerusalem.

To discouraged exiles who saw the prosperity of every nation except their ruined one, this great prophet promised that some day, the Lord would balance the books and godless, heathen, violent nations would get their comeuppance and God’s people would be restored. Once again, much of what Ezekiel prophesied came to pass in his lifetime as many nations fell throughout the 6th century BC.

• The glory of God revealed

Like no other prophet, Ezekiel wrote in sweeping terms about the magnificent glory of God.

Then the man brought me to the gate facing east, and I saw the glory of the God of Israel coming from the east. His voice was like the roar of rushing waters, and the land was radiant with his glory. The vision I saw was like the vision I had seen when he came to destroy the city and like the visions I had seen by the Kebar River, and I fell facedown. The glory of the LORD entered the temple through the gate facing east. Then the Spirit lifted me up and brought me into the inner court, and the glory of the LORD filled the temple. (Ezekiel 43:1 – 5 | NIV84)

• The responsibility of the individual

There are two exceptional chapters – 18 and 33 – that contain the most thorough teachings on personal responsibility anywhere in the Bible. Anybody who entertains the philosophies of fatalism or determinism needs to study these two chapters.

• Israel’s long history of sin

Throughout the book of Ezekiel is the reality of the fact of the Lord’s judgment upon His people was due to the continued sin and disobedience to the law of God by those people. The loss of the Promised Land, some population, exile and loss of freedom smacked the people upside the head.

What happened to Judah was not random or arbitrary or something God decided to do on a whim. It was brought about by the historic behavior of His people who knew better, yet chose to go their own way repeatedly.

• The influence of national leadership for good or bad

Israel’s past kings, and even the kings of other nations (Tyre and Egypt especially) played a role in Ezekiel’s prophecies and in the fall of Jerusalem. We see the population rising or sinking to the moral and spiritual state of their leaders. This is a fact of the history of all nations, but especially that of Israel and Judah.

From a practical standpoint, greedy, ignorant, impetuous, immature, and amoral leaders made decisions and entered into political agreements with godless nations that ended disastrously. And their lack of spiritual discernment resulted in a rise of idolatry and a decline of Jehovah worship.

Ezekiel offered rebuke and hope that a future king would actually do right by his people.

• God is holy and His people should also be holy

The people were well-aware of their God’s absolute, total holiness. But that knowledge didn’t compel them to live holy lives themselves. Ezekiel’s people failed to make the connection between God’s holiness and their own. Ezekiel made it plain that God cannot ever tolerate disobedience and rebellion because it not only impugns His good Name and character, but it also defiles institutions and godly people.

• God’s transcendence

Ezekiel’s book begins and ends with incredible visons of an awesome God and the unlimited power He yields. God is not limited to Israel; He is bigger than any nation or region or anybody’s interests. God is a universal God who will judge all nations, and restore His people in every way. He will give His people a place to live in forever, and they will enjoy His provision and presence for eternity and they will finally and forever worship Him in spirit and truth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Master Multiplier, Part 6

Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. (1 Timothy 6:17 | TNIV)

I’ve come to the end of another series, and, as they say, I saved the best for last. Throughout this series, we discovered that God is a giver. He’s the greatest giver ever. God gives His people:

• Abundant grace – more grace than enough!
• Life – and He sustains all life
• Victory – over death, hell, and the grave
• Wisdom – in the midst of all of life’s difficulties, God gives us perspective
• Gifts – and the ability to use them in His service

God is simply amazing, and He gives us so much. The final gift I want to look at is the most amazing gift all: He gives us everything for our enjoyment! It doesn’t get better than EVERYTHING, does it?!

Paul wrote this verse to a young pastor. I was a young pastor once, and I can tell you it wasn’t easy. If I was told that God could give me “everything for my enjoyment,” I’d wonder when He was going to get around to it! Barely scraping by in small churches, living paycheck to paycheck is hardly enjoyable! There were lots of things I could have used to make my life more enjoyable that I never got – from God or anybody else, for that matter.

So, what was Paul getting at when he made that statement? Let’s take a look.

Letters to pastors

Paul was a prolific letter-writer. Had be been active in our time, he likely would have been the kind of person who is constantly checking his email, responding to emails, sending out text messages or tweeting all day long. We have only a fraction – a small fraction – of his letters, preserved for us in the Bible. Almost all of the letters we have were written by Paul were written to various churches, with the exception of Philemon, which was written to person, and a small group of letters that have come be known as “the Pastorals.” They were written to pastors, whose names are forever a part of our Bible theology: Timothy and Titus.

Paul’s letters were meant to be read aloud to the congregations they were sent to, and even Philemon, addressed to a man, was to be read out loud to the congregation that met in his home. And even these personal letters written to pastors were obviously copied and circulated since we have them collected in our Bible. Paul probably wrote letters to other pastors and church leaders. We could easily imagine the apostle scribbling out a letter or two to Barnabas and Luke, Mark and Apollos. We don’t have those letters, but we do have these letters written to Timothy and Titus. The Holy Spirit thought enough of what Paul wrote to these men in these letters that He supernaturally preserved them for us. That means that we should take special note of his advice. You may or may not be a pastor or church worker, but his advice and counsel is timeless and of great import for all believers.

The Pastorals were written by Paul late in his career, probably after his first Roman imprisonment, around 61 or 62 AD. Tradition tells us that Paul was martyred in the late 60’s, so we’re reading things that were on the great apostle’s mind near the end of his life. Most scholars think that Paul wrote 1 Timothy, followed by his letter to Titus, and then a second letter to Timothy.

Who was Timothy?

To Timothy my true son in the faith: Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord. (1 Timothy 1:2 | TNIV)

That’s how this letter is addressed. Timothy was Paul’s “true son in the faith.” Naturally Timothy wasn’t Paul’s real son. He didn’t have children as far as we know. Timothy was his “son in the faith,” or his “spiritual son,” meaning that Paul was instrumental in leading this young man to the Lord and then disciplining him in the faith.

The first mention of Timothy is all the way back in the book of Acts, a history of the early church:

Paul came to Derbe and then to Lystra, where a disciple named Timothy lived, whose mother was Jewish and a believer but whose father was a Greek. The believers at Lystra and Iconium spoke well of him. Paul wanted to take him along on the journey, so he circumcised him because of the Jews who lived in that area, for they all knew that his father was a Greek. (Acts 16:1 – 3 | TNIV)

This chapter tells the story of Paul’s second visit to Derbe and Lystry, and it’s not unreasonable to think that he was directly responsible for leading Timothy’s mother (Eunice) and grandmother (Lois) to the Lord. If you know your Bible, then you know that it was here in Lystra that Paul faced some bitter opposition and persecution and it was in the home of Eunice that he likely found solace and safety.

Timothy was around 17 years of age when all this happened, so assuming he was led to the Lord during this period, then he would have been in his mid-30’s when Paul wrote his first letter to him. But in the years inbetween, Timothy traveled with Paul and others as they took the Gospel to the known world.

It’s evident that this young man was special to Paul and to his ministry. Timothy was fiercely loyal to Paul and to the work of the ministry and devoted to believers in all churches. Here’s Paul’s appraisal of this young man’s worth:

I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, that I also may be cheered when I receive news about you. I have no one else like him, who will show genuine concern for your welfare. For everyone looks out for their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ. But you know that Timothy has proved himself, because as a son with his father he has served with me in the work of the gospel. (Philippians 2:19 – 22 | TNIV)

The pastor’s potential problem

We get the impression that all early Christians were poor – unemployed, persecuted, world-weary men and women who had virtually no resources of their own. That’s just not true. There were many converts to Christianity who were had been wealthy, influential people who gave up some or all to follow Christ, but they didn’t stay that way. There were poor and down-trodden Christians to be sure, but there were church members who were middle class, upper middle class, and wealthy people. All kinds of people were reached and transformed by the Gospel. And that’s why Paul wrote this piece of advice to Pastor Timothy:

Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. (1 Timothy 6:17 | TNIV)

It seems clear that Timothy had some of “those who are rich” in his church. This verse occurs in the midst of a very important issue: How people in the various strata of society ought to live out their faith in the world.

Christian slaves and Christian masters, 6:1, 2

The first two groups of people that made up Timothy’s congregation were slaves and slave owners. Here’s his advice to these two very disparate groups:

All who are under the yoke of slavery should consider their masters worthy of full respect, so that God’s name and our teaching may not be slandered. Those who have believing masters should not show them disrespect just because they are fellow believers. Instead, they should serve them even better because their masters are dear to them as fellow believers and are devoted to the welfare of their slaves. These are the things you are to teach and insist on.

Today’s Christian may cringe when they read the words “slave” and “master,” but they shouldn’t impose our 21st century values upon those living in the first century. Those “slaves” back then would be roughly equivalent to today’s employee or perhaps “household help,” and the “master” would be the “employer,” for the sake of making a reasonable application. Timothy was to teach and insist upon proper behavior from both employee and employer. Dr McGee summarizes the duty of the slave like this:

The Christian is to turn in a full day’s work for a full day’s pay.

And if the slave owner – the boss – is a believer who employs fellow believers, he shouldn’t take advantage of them just because they have a common faith. As one scholar put it,

It must have called for an amazing degree of forbearance on the part of both parties to this relationship to make it work.

• False teachers, 6:3 – 5

If you know 1 Timothy, then you know that the young pastor must have been contending with false teaching and false teachers within his own congregation. False teachers are sometimes obvious about it, other times a false teacher may be an otherwise commendable member who has happened to glom onto a bit of false teaching, who then re-teaches it to other members of the church. He’s ignorant; he has no idea that what he’s doing is dangerous.

If anyone teaches otherwise and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching, they are conceited and understand nothing. They have an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions. (1 Timothy 6:3, 4 | TNIV)

Sounds like some people in your church? You know the type: To people like this, everything the church does is wrong – it’s wrong to put up a Christmas tree or sing Christmas carols; Easter is a pagan holiday; Sunday is a pagan day; Christians should only read the KJV; and the list goes on. These people think they know more than you do or more than the pastor does. Paul’s characterization of this type of person is picturesque to say the least: “a pompous ignoramus,” “a swollen headed idiot,” and a “conceited idiot.” The great Martin Luther, whose insults are as legendary as his “reform” theology, said this about such people:

I would not dream of judging or punishing you, except to say that you were born from the behind of the devil, are full of devils, lies, blasphemy, and idolatry; are the instigator of these things, God’s enemy, Antichrist, desolater of Christendom, and steward of Sodom.

And sometimes these false teachers equate monetary gain is a sign of God’s blessing:

who think that godliness is a means to financial gain. (1 Timothy 6:5b | TNIV)

The worst kind of false teacher is the one who makes money off of his bad teaching. And Paul’s advice to Pastor Timothy is classic:

But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. (1 Timothy 6:11 | TNIV)

Now we get a glimmer of a potential problem with Timothy, and it’s the common affliction of most young preachers, and maybe old ones, too. Often times there isn’t a lot of financial reward in preaching the Gospel. If the pastor of a church isn’t careful, he can start to resent the wealthy members of his church because of their wealth. It might be tempting to latch onto the popular preaching of the day – the pop psychology dressed up and baptized as Christian theology that is so popular nowadays – and make a few extra bucks. It’s tempting. And it’s tempting for the average Christian to grab hold of the kind of theology that promises easy blessings and a kind of faith that makes you rich.
Pastors and all true believers need to “flee from all this” and have nothing to do with false teachers and teachings. True faith may not pay rich dividends to those of us who are trying to practice it, but true faith does bring peace and satisfaction and contentment. And that’s why Paul wrote this famous verse that is often misquoted:

For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. (1 Timothy 6:10 | TNIV)

Paul’s concern was not for the rich people in Timothy’s church necessarily, although he was told to teach those people to keep things in perspective. The apostle’s main concern was for young pastor Timothy; he’s the one in danger. It’s so easy for all Christians to look at what others have, especially other Chritians, and to become discouraged because they don’t seem to be as prosperous. People in that state of mind are ripe pickings for false teachers and fall pray to all manner of false teachings.  And people like that often accuse those prosperous Christians of sinful practices because, after all, only in doing something wrong or questionable can a person acquire so much  (that’s a sarcastic statement).

And this is why Paul told Timothy – and us – that God gives us everything for our enjoyment. God is the Great Provider; from Him all good things descend. Timothy’s church was in Ephesus, a place full of prosperous people; full of businesses, and he had lots of these people in his church. To those people, and to people like himself, Timothy was to drive home the point that ALL IS OF GOD, both wealth, the ability to acquire it, and the ability to enjoy it.

 

 

 

The Master Multiplier, Part 5

We all enjoy getting presents. Whether it’s at Christmas or for our birthday or some other occasion, who doesn’t like ripping open a gift? And most of us like to give gifts; we get a lot of joy and satisfaction watching the other person opening their gift from us. It’s just built into us, I guess. As we get older, it becomes harder to buy a gift for us. And even though we could have bought a certain item, it feels good to receive it as a gift from a friend or loved one. It makes us feel a little special and we realize that we mean something to them.

God is the giver of perfect gifts. He gives us gifts that we can really use. Starting with the gift of His Son, God continually gives gifts to His people. We’ve already looked at some:

The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. (Acts 17:24, 25 | TNIV)

God gives everyone life and breath and, as Paul said, “everything else.” That’s a stunning declaration that some people have a difficult time dealing with. God gives life but He also sustains life. You’re alive today because God is keeping you alive. You woke up this morning because God decided to give you another day. Think about that!

I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. (1 Corinthians 3:6, 7 | TNIV)

Here Paul was referring to his evangelistic efforts. He was a great preacher – one of the best that ever lived, yet he acknowledged that he was just one of many doing the work of God. As God gave opportunities, Paul planted seeds of faith just like a fellow like Apollos did, but ultimately it was God who was bringing about salvation in men, not Paul or anybody else.

But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:57 | TNIV)

God gives all of us victory over death, hell, and the grave through Jesus Christ. Death doesn’t have the last word! We do! That word is “victory!”

If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. (James 1:5 | TNIV)

In times of difficulty and stress, God promises to give you wisdom if just ask Him. Wisdom is the one thing we all need more of, and if we ask God, He will give us more than enough. He gives perfect perspective, allowing us to navigate through all the twists and turns of life.

But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says: “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble and oppressed.”. (James 4:6 | TNIV)

And God gives us even more grace – He gives us an over-abundance of grace. He never gives just enough, but always more than we think we need.

But then, we read of this gift in 1 Peter:

If any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of God; if any man minister, let him do it as of the ability which God giveth: that God in all things may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom be praise and dominion for ever and ever. Amen. (1 Peter 4:11 | KJV)

God gives abilities with which we may serve Him. Think about that for a moment. God makes us able to do that which He asks of us. Yet how many of us face the prospect of serving Him with fear or doubt? We always think “the other guy” can do it better than we can. Well, according to Peter, that’s baloney.

Let’s consider what Peter meant when he wrote of these abilities from God, because as always, there much more going on than meets the eye.

Be like Christ – Suffering

In various ways, Peter had been writing about suffering; that is, suffering on account of the faith. He was writing to people who were suffering various degrees of persecution, and his purpose was to show that this kind of suffering was inescapable; that the best way to deal with it was to be prepared for it. In chapter 3, Peter wrote about Christ’s suffering for us. Of course, our Lord not only suffered for us, but He also died for us. As a Christian, how do you respond to that? According to Peter, here’s how you should:

Therefore, since Christ suffered in his body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude, because those who have suffered in their bodies are done with sin. (1 Peter 4:1 | TNIV)

That’s right; we should have the same attitude as He did. We need to think and reason and respond to suffering or persecution as He did. Peter covered that a couple of chapters back:

To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. (1 Peter 2:21 – 23 | TNIV)

According to Peter, when we suffer barbs of criticism because we follow Christ, or indeed if we are persecuted to a greater extent because of our faith, we are “done with sin.” That’s a funny thing for the apostle to say. While it sounds like he is saying that “persecution drives the sin out of us,” that’s not at all what he is getting at. It’s really the other way around: Because we are “done with sin,” we are now facing various kinds of persecution. Or, another way to put it might me: Because you are now taking your faith seriously and have stopped this sin or that, you will face mockery or jeering or worse forms of persecution. Your new life of faith and holiness makes you a target!

But your attitude through it all should be that of Jesus. The Christian who keeps the faith and remains true to Christ during persecution does not do evil. He doesn’t fight back, for he will withstand persecution as Christ did. Consider this:

Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? (Matthew 26:53 | TNIV)

That’s right. Jesus could have called on thousands of angels to get Him out of the predicament He was in with the Jewish religious leaders and with the Romans. But He didn’t. He faced it. He submitted to His captors. Christ never gave evil for evil, and the Christian who has the attitude of Christ toward suffering will not strike out against his persecutors.

Be Like Christ – Purpose

In verse two, Peter contrasts two philosophies:

As a result, they do not live the rest of their earthly lives for evil human desires, but rather for the will of God. (1 Peter 4:2 | TNIV)

The person who doesn’t know God or knows God but isn’t serving Christ is not living for the will of God but does everything he can to fulfill his own human desires, which more often than not run contrary to God’s will. But the true believer’s goal in life is to accomplish God’s will and he actively finds ways to do just that. In verse 3, Peter touches on some of things that the believer used to spend his time doing:

For you have spent enough time in the past doing what pagans choose to do—living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry. (1 Peter 4:3 | TNIV)

It’s amazing how much time you have on your hands when you aren’t trying to find a party to go to or recovering from the party you were at the night before! Before you were saved you did those things, but now you don’t. Another amazing thing happens when you start taking your faith seriously: You’ll probably lose some friends. And it likely won’t be your idea:

They are surprised that you do not join them in their reckless, wild living, and they heap abuse on you. (1 Peter 4:4 | TNIV)

Really, what Peter is talking about here is living a life of holiness – separated to God, though not physically separated from the world. You still have to live in this world of sin, but living for God means you don’t participate in all the things the world thinks are so great and necessary. The people you once spent time partying with or, as Peter might have said, “sinning with,” may not be interested in God’s will and because they likely won’t understand it, maybe they’ll “heap abuse on you.” It’s illogical to be sure, but who said sin in logical?

But when you get to thinking they’re right and you’re wrong, remember these words:

But they will have to give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. (1 Peter 4:5 | TNIV)

That’s right; they may live like there’s no God and like they aren’t responsible to Him for the sinful choices they make, but it doesn’t matter what they believe: There is a God and they will stand before Him and give an account of how they lived their lives and, more importantly, why they rejected Him. And before you think there are exceptions, know this: Every human being, at some point in their lives, will be given the choice to serve God. That’s Peter’s point in verse 6:

For this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead, so that they might be judged according to human standards in regard to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit. (1 Peter 4:6 | TNIV)

Peter uses the term “dead” to refer to individuals who heard the presentation of the Gospel – who where given the choice – while they were living, but now at the time he wrote this letter are now dead. The point is that these individuals had heard the Gospel, but they rejected it.

Be Like Christ – Service

Fortunately, not all people reject the Gospel. A great many accept it and their lives are good examples for us to follow. The rest of the world may live like there’s no end in sight, but the truth is, there is an end coming:

The end of all things is near. Therefore be alert and of sober mind so that you may pray. (1 Peter 4:7 | TNIV)

Christians ought to be clear-headed and see things with a God-given perspective so that they may pray more effectively. See how important prayer is? It’s linked to how you perceive your world. If you’re so dull-witted that you think everything is hunky dory, then your prayer life will probably be lackluster, boring, and a waste of God’s time. However, if you begin to take your faith seriously, pretty soon you’ll start to see your world the way God does, and your prayers will reflect that. Your prayers will become serious prayers that God takes seriously.

However, a believer can’t just pray all the time without a thought to other members of the church. Prayer is important, but so in maintaining a good relationship with other believers:

 Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. (1 Peter 4:8, 9 | TNIV)

Love exists between believers, or it should, and we ought to love each other “deeply.” That’s a good word but it’s not the best. Other translations use the word “fervently,” but even that word isn’t strong enough. The Greek word carries the idea, for example, of an athlete straining his muscles in an effort to win his race or reach his goal, or of a horse running at a full gallop. It’s an intense word that suggests an intense effort. More important than any other thing, believers should practice love for each other fervently. According to John, this how other people know we are true believers:

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.  No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. (1 John 4:7, 12 | TNIV)

This kind of deep love, Peter says, “covers over a multitude of sins,” which is an awkward way of saying that as we love each other the way Christ loves us we will forgive each other. It’s not that love excuses sin or hides it, but rather forgives it. This kind of love accepts the person just as he is, faults and all. This does not imply that the local church should never deal with gross sins, but that the Christian should never hold past sins against a brother who has turned his back on those sins.

Use your gift(s)

And that’s the background that gets us to God’s gifts to us:

Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. (1 Peter 4:10 | TNIV)

It’s not a coincidence that Peter mentions using one’s gifts from God right after a discussion about loving each other. Spiritual gifts need to be used within the context of love. Whatever gift or gifts God has given you, you are to use them in love. God gives us gifts in love and He expects us to exercise them the same way. Peter briefly mentions a couple of those gifts in the next verse, but his point is that without your spiritual gift or gifts operating in your church, your church will suffer.

If you speak, you should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If you serve, you should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen. (1 Peter 4:11 | TNIV)

Now would be a good time pause and examine your own life to see if you are using your God-given gift or gifts to benefit the Body of Christ. Getting by in this world of sin isn’t always easy for the child of God but He has given us the tools to not only get by but to live in victory in spite of circumstances. We owe each other in the church love and the faithful exercise of our spiritual gifts.

 

 

 

 

 

 


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