7 Surprised People in the Bible, Part 7

 “Call me Ishmael.”  That’s how Herman Melville began his novel, Moby Dick.  Written in 1851 when most people still went to church, Ishmael was a man who very much wanted to go to sea.  Attending services at Whaleman’s Chapel in New Bedford, Massachusetts, he listened to a sermon preached by Father Mapple.

Shipmates, I do not place Jonah before you to be copied for his sin, but I do place him before you as a model for repentance.  Sin not, but if you do, take heed to repent of it like Jonah.

Jonah is the name of a book which belongs to a division of books in the Old Testament that we call “the Minor Prophets.”  We call them “minor prophets,” not because their messages are unimportant but because these books are all relatively short – quick reads full of prophecies, usually dealing with death and destruction.  

Jonah is also the name of the book’s major character, the prophet Jonah.  But Jonah was an unusual prophet of God. He was a rebel. He was a bit of scoundrel.  So this little book has the dubious distinction of being the only book of the Bible named after a shifty character.

As a matter of fact, that very fact has caused a lot of debate over the centuries as to the correct interpretation of the book of Jonah. Was he real?  Is his story a work of fiction?  What are the lessons to be divined from it?  The purpose of this brief study is not to rehash all the things Bible scholars love to debate.  I have little interest in how many angels can stand of the head of a pin, and as far as I’m concerned, if Jesus believed Jonah was real and his story was genuine, then that’s good enough for me.  The real value of the book of Jonah is that he is the perfect example of how a modern Christian should NOT behave.  He did what we should never do but frequently do: He ran away from God.  

By the time you get to the last verse of Jonah’s story, you’ll realize that the overriding theme of the entire book is a very simple, yet profound one.  

The LORD is merciful and gracious, Slow to anger, and abounding in mercy.  (Psalm 103:8 | NKJV)

And to say that there were a number of very surprised people in the story of Jonah would be an understatement.  All kinds of people of were surprised, from the man himself to the Assyrians to some sailors.  Let’s take a look at a very surprising book of the Old Testament.

The wrong way prophet, chapter 1

But Jonah arose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD. He went down to Joppa, and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid the fare, and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD.  (Jonah 1:3 | NKJV)

Maybe in the history of all God’s prophets, Jonah is the only one to have done this: He fled from the presence of the Lord.  To be precise, God told Jonah to go in a certain direction but the prophet fled in the exact opposite direction.  That took some nerve. But why did he do that?  The answer is simple.  Jonah didn’t like his new assignment from God.  He was told to go to Nineveh and preach to them.  Nineveh was the “heart of darkness” as far as the Israelites were concerned.  It was a huge city-state that was growing into an empire that was well on its way to dominating the world at that time: Assyria. It seems odd, at least at this juncture of the story, that Jonah refused to be obedient to the word of the Lord.  The message would seem to appeal to him, given how much the Israelites, and indeed, other nations, hated the people of Nineveh.

Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before Me.”  (Jonah 1:2 | NKJV)

In the very simplest of terms, Jonah was representative of all the bigotry of his people.  He wanted nothing to do with the people of Nineveh because he, like most of his people, was a bigot.  From our politically correct standpoint, it would be very easy to condemn Jonah and say that surely he should have known better; that the Word of God should easily trump any national or religious prejudice the prophet may be have harbored.  But we should remember that Jonah wasn’t alone in his feeling toward what the New Testament calls “gentiles.”  Recall that even after the stunning event of Pentecost, the great apostle Peter had problems with preaching to the Gentiles.  It took a special revelation from God and some very odd circumstances to get Peter to visit a Gentile named Cornelius and preach the Gospel to him and his whole family.  This incredible experience changed Peter and made him realize something.

And those of the circumcision who believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also.  For they heard them speak with tongues and magnify God. Then Peter answered, “Can anyone forbid water, that these should not be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”  (Acts 10:45 – 47 | NKJV)

It took the Christian church to show the world what happens when people are able to set aside their prejudices and bigotry.  The world likes say Christians are bigoted and prejudiced, but the exact opposite is the truth.

But coming back to Jonah, he had an even bigger problem than preaching to people he didn’t care for.  In the last chapter of the book, the prophet in a moment of surprising honesty, fesses up to the Lord and tells him why he didn’t want to go to Nineveh.

So he prayed to the LORD, and said, “Ah, LORD, was not this what I said when I was still in my country? Therefore I fled previously to Tarshish; for I know that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, One who relents from doing harm.  (Jonah 4:2 | NKJV)

It was really the character of God that kept Jonah from his mission. But more on that when we get to the end of the story.  For now, Jonah bought passage on a ship bound to Tarshish.  But Jonah found out what you probably already know: You can’t run away from God.

But the LORD sent out a great wind on the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship was about to be broken up.  (Jonah 1:4 | NKJV)

Now, we all know that in a few verses, Jonah ends up in the belly of a great fish.  That’s surprising enough, but something even more surprising happens first.  During the storm, the pagan sailors are keen enough to realize that the storm was caused by Jonah!

Then the men were exceedingly afraid, and said to him, “Why have you done this?” For the men knew that he fled from the presence of the LORD, because he had told them.  (Jonah 1:10 | NKJV)

For his part, Jonah didn’t want these hardened men to be killed on his account, so he told them to just throw him overboard.  He knew the character of God, so he knew God would spare this ship further damage if he wasn’t on board.  You have to hand it to the sailors.  They didn’t want to harm Jonah, at least at first.  But then this happened; a most surprising thing, indeed.

Therefore they cried out to the LORD and said, “We pray, O LORD, please do not let us perish for this man’s life, and do not charge us with innocent blood; for You, O LORD, have done as it pleased You.”  So they picked up Jonah and threw him into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging.  Then the men feared the LORD exceedingly, and offered a sacrifice to the LORD and took vows.  (Jonah 1:14 – 16 | NKJV)

Somehow, these pagan sailors had more common sense that did Jonah!  They actually prayed to Yahweh, tossed Jonah overboard, and became believers in the Lord, even offering Him a sacrifice.  Yet, in a very real sense, Jonah became their sacrifice.  One scholar noticed this and made an interesting statement.

There is [in the sacrifice of Jesus] a spiritual parallel to the picture of Jonah cast into the sea, as well as a spiritual contrast. The fiercest of tempests is that of the wrath of God against sin; that storm gathered about the Person of our Lord and could only be stilled by His death on the cross. 

Well, Jonah’s supposed death in the sea calmed the storm and the sailors were saved.  Something else to keep in mind.  This was a storm on the sea, meaning there were likely other boats and lives put at risk all because one believer in God sinned against God.  Your personal sin always hurts other people, whether you realize it or not.

Jonah learned a valuable lesson in this chapter.  He boarded the ship and fell asleep, secure in the knowledge that he had escaped the Lord.  But he woke up knowing he couldn’t escape God and that God could easily frustrate the plans of a man.

A fishy story, chapter 2

Everybody loves this part of Jonah’s story, and being swallowed by a big fish is what everybody knows about concerning the book of Jonah.  But, to me, it’s the least interesting part of the story.  While skeptics stumble over the notion that a man can survive in the belly of a fish for some time, I say, “Why not?”  Read this verse carefully and you’ll see why I don’t have any problem with this fishy part of the story:

Now the LORD had prepared a great fish to swallow Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.  (Jonah 1:17 | NKJV)

The Bible says “the Lord had prepared a great fish.”  This was no ordinary fish.  It was a special fish prepared by God for the sole purpose of housing Jonah for three days and three nights.  This was not a whale but a singularly created fish by God.  

People, skeptics and scholars alike, get all hung up on the “great fish” when they ought to get hung up on the fact that God delivered Jonah.  Does it really matter how Jonah was delivered?  I believe exactly what the Bible says – that God created a special kind of fish for Jonah –  but suppose God provided a piece of wood that floated by at the exact moment that Jonah was thrown overboard and that in the dark of the storm and tumultuous sea, Jonah somehow found that chunk of wood and that it kept him alive for three days on the open sea. Is that any less miraculous?  

Chapter two concerns the prayer that Jonah prayed while he was housed in the belly of the special fish.  It’s an amazing prayer, for sure.  At least Jonah had the presence of mind to pray now.  He should have prayed on the ship, but he’s doing it now and that’s good.  And the prayer is a magnificent one.  It’s beautiful – as beautiful as any psalm in the Psalter.  There’s just one problem with it.  It essentially ignores the events of chapter 1 – the whole reason why Jonah found himself in such an unenviable predicament!  Nowhere in this prayer does the prophet repent!

But God, being as gracious as He is, gave Jonah another chance to do the right thing.

So the LORD spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.  (Jonah 2:10 | NKJV)

Jonah gets the job done, chapter 3

Jonah finally takes steps in the right direction. He heads to Nineveh to preach.  

And Jonah began to enter the city on the first day’s walk. Then he cried out and said, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”  (Jonah 3:4 | NKJV)

Nineveh, which the Bible calls a “great city,” really wasn’t all that big, in terms of real estate.  But it was a powerful city, full of wealth and people of great influence.  And yet at the same time, while there was great wealth, there was also great poverty.  We can imagine that Jonah wasn’t all that impressed as he walked around the city preaching to people who were well dressed and well fed at one end of a street and people in dire need at the other.  It was also full of sinners in need of saving. That “great city” became the focal point of God’s compassion, and that’s why He sent a prophet there to preach a strong message of repentance.  Remarkably, the people listened and heeded the call, as did the King, who made a proclamation:

And he caused it to be proclaimed and published throughout Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying, Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything; do not let them eat, or drink water.  But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily to God; yes, let every one turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands.  Who can tell if God will turn and relent, and turn away from His fierce anger, so that we may not perish?  (Jonah 3:7b – 9 | NKJV)

God saw and heard the sincerity of their repentance.  The people of Nineveh earnestly turned from their evil ways.  Even though they may not have been one hundred percent sure of God’s promise, repentance done in hope and faith always gets God’s undivided attention, and God honored them.  He relented and spared the “great city” destruction.  This brings an interesting aspect of God’s character to our attention.  God is absolutely unchanging in His final purpose for mankind, and His nature itself is unchanging.  However, as people change in their response to Him and His Word, He will change the way He deals with them.  

Something else that even the most casual reader can’t help but notice is this: The sailors, their captain, the Ninevites, and their King were all pagans, and yet they all did something God’s prophet did not.  They all humbly repented before God; they all hoped that God would be merciful, which He was.  

A depressed man of God, chapter 4

But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he became angry.  (Jonah 4:1 | NKJV)

Jonah knew it all along.  He just knew God would keep His word.  For all his shortcomings – and there were plenty of those – this prophet understood God well.  The people repented and God relented.  And that made Jonah one miserable man of God!

In an irony to top all ironies, we discover something unsettling about Jonah:  His idol was himself.  He preferred God to act in accordance to the god he had in his mind.  The problem was, Jonah’s god was too small, yet too big to see around.  He just hated that God wouldn’t do what he, Jonah, thought He should do, and that was destroy the Ninevites.  

As he had when he found himself in the belly of the special fish, Jonah prayed.  

So he prayed to the LORD, and said, “Ah, LORD, was not this what I said when I was still in my country? Therefore I fled previously to Tarshish; for I know that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, One who relents from doing harm. Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live!”  (Jonah 4:2, 3 | NKJV)

This prayer got a couple of things right even though there is still a glaring omission.  First, we see that as mixed up as Jonah was, he did understand God.  And that’s more than most Christians today have going for them.  He understood God but didn’t like how He conducted business.  Second, Jonah confessed what he had done.  He owned up to his faithless and rebellious actions.  The glaring omission is that he didn’t repent!  He confessed but didn’t ask for forgiveness.  That is, no pun intended, unforgivable.  It’s like winning the lottery but misplacing the ticket!  Here was Jonah’s big chance to have the Lord wipe his slate clean, and again he came up short.

But God is nothing if not gracious.  He was gracious with the Ninevites and He is now very gracious with Jonah.  Of course the Lord wouldn’t take Jonah’s life.  Instead, He attempted to reason with the man.  

Then the LORD said, “Is it right for you to be angry?”  (Jonah 4:4 | NKJV)

We should be grateful, too, that often the Lord doesn’t answer our prayers the way want Him to!  Untold disasters have probably been avoided because God held His ground when we prayed.  But again, Jonah shows his true colors.  Apparently the reasoning hadn’t helped, and Jonah sat a way from the city to watch what would happen to it.  The Lord tried another tack with this obtuse man; He will now use a living illustration.

And the LORD God prepared a plant and made it come up over Jonah, that it might be shade for his head to deliver him from his misery. So Jonah was very grateful for the plant.  But as morning dawned the next day God prepared a worm, and it so damaged the plant that it withered.  And it happened, when the sun arose, that God prepared a vehement east wind; and the sun beat on Jonah’s head, so that he grew faint. Then he wished death for himself, and said, “It is better for me to die than to live.”  (Jonah 4:6 – 8 | NKJV)

Naturally, Jonah was glad that his need for shade was met.  But being glad is not the same thing as being grateful.  Jonah’s gladness was all selfish.  He was glad for the gift, but hadn’t given a thought to Giver.  And when the gift was gone, he was angry and complained to God.  In his selfishness, Jonah missed a very profound spiritual lesson God was trying to teach him.  This is what happens when you look at yourself too much instead of looking to God.  The lesson was a simple one. 

But the LORD said, “You have had pity on the plant for which you have not labored, nor made it grow, which came up in a night and perished in a night.  And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot discern between their right hand and their left-and much livestock?”  (Jonah 4:10, 11 | NKJV)

Jonah was concerned about what happened to an insignificant plant, yet he should have been concerned about where 120,000 ignorant sinners would spend eternity.  The prophet’s priorities were completely out of whack.  The lesson for Jonah, and for all of us, was that God is concerned about everybody.  

The book ends with a question.  We don’t know how Jonah answered it, or even if he did.  How would you answer it?  Father Mapple’s sermon contains another interesting point that will bring this study to an end.

And if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves, and it is this disobeying ourselves wherein the hardness of obeying God consists.

 

 

 

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7 Surprised People in the Bible, Part 6

 

 Most of us are at least vaguely familiar with a wee little man by name of Zacchaeus.  Even if we haven’t read the Biblical account of his visit with Jesus, we sung the song in Sunday School and Bible camps.

Zacchaeus was a wee little man,

And a wee little man was he.

He climbed up in a sycamore tree For the Lord he wanted to see.

 

And as the Savior passed that way

He looked up in the tree and he said,

Zacchaeus you come down, For I’m going to your house today!

For I’m going to your house today!

 

Zacchaeus was a wee little man,

But a happy man was he,

For he had seen the Lord that day

And a happy man was he;

And a very happy man was he.

Nobody knows who wrote this little ditty.  It’s been around for so long though.  But just who was the wee little man, Zacchaeus?  Did he really climb up a tree?  I guess the reason the song and the man are so memorable to us is because as kids, we were “wee” and “little,” so we could relate to a small guy climbing up a tree to something or somebody.  The story of this vertically challenged man is found only the gospel of Luke and nowhere else.  That makes it special and worthy of our attention.  If ever there was a man who got the surprise of his life, it was Zacchaeus.  Let’s see what happened to him that day when he climbed up a sycamore tree to catch a glimpse of the Savior as He passed by.

A rich man gets a surprise

The story of Zacchaeus starts in Luke 19, but if you want to understand it in context, you really  need to go back a chapter.  Dr Luke was no dummy, and there’s a reason why these two chapters and their stories are placed back-to-back.

In chapter 18 of Luke’s gospel, the good Dr relates a number of incidents in the ministry of Jesus designed to teach us something about the qualities our Lord is looking for in those who would follow Him and those whom He would bless.  Very, very quickly, with the speed of lightening, here they are:

Always persist, Luke 18:1 – 8.  In this, the parable of the unrighteous judge, Jesus isn’t trying to teach us something about widows or God’s nature.  The point of the story is that if a secular judge will finally hear an appeal, how much more quickly will your Heavenly Father, who loves you with a perfect love, hear you and respond?  So don’t give up no matter what the odds.  The persistence refers to not giving up and throwing in the towel.  It doesn’t refer to bugging God to answer a prayer.  If you reach what seems to be an impossible situation, instead of panicking, and going all distraught, just call out to God and He’ll see you through.

Be humble, Luke 18:9 – 14.  The simple lesson of this parable is that our opinion of ourselves will determine our opinion of who God is.  The giver who thought highly of himself saw God, not in a loving, personal and intimate way, but in a very cold, distant and impersonal way.  The humble giver, though, was awed by God.  He is the one who would experience God’s grace and compassion because he needed to.

Be child-like, Luke 18:15 – 17.  God want us to be child-like, not childish.  There is a world of difference.  It’s not that God thinks children are more virtuous than adults; they really aren’t.  They’re just as selfish, devious, and conniving as their parents are.  It’s that God wants us to depend on Him as a child depends on his father.  

Be single-minded in your devotion, Luke 18:18 – 23.  That’s the whole point of the rich, young ruler story.  It’s not about the impossibility of a rich man going to heaven, although that’s what we common folk like to think.  It wasn’t his wealth that was the problem, it was his attitude.  The rich, young ruler loved Jesus, no doubt, but his wealth was more important to him.  He just couldn’t give it up.  By the way, giving up wealth is not a prerequisite for following Christ.  You can certainly be a wealthy disciple.  What Jesus wants are people who will be completely devoted to Him and the Kingdom.  He knows what will come between you and your service to Him, and that’s what He asks you to surrender.  For most of us, wealth probably isn’t the problem.  Maybe it’s the lack of wealth. Or ambition. Or career goals.  All kinds of things and people can stop you from being completely devoted and committed to Christ.

This sermon series is about surprised people in the Bible, and I guess the rich, young ruler was surprised by our Lord’s response to him.  

When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”  (Luke 18:22 | TNIV)

The call to give away his wealth wasn’t just a challenge to the young man, it was a call to faith.  He already admired Jesus and was serious about how he was living.  He was scrupulously keeping the commandments.  But for all his hard work, he just didn’t understand the commandments he was working so hard to keep.  

When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was very wealthy.  (Luke 18 23 | TNIV)

He claimed to love God – that was one of the commandments he kept – but when faced with the choice, his love for God was really an empty love; he couldn’t serve God if it meant giving up his wealth.  Like so many so-called Christians today, God really didn’t have first place in his heart.  No wonder he left Jesus sad.  

Another rich man gets a bigger surprise

That’s the background most people don’t associate with the story of Zacchaeus, the short fellow.  They should, because as you’ll see, Zacchaeus essentially did everything right without the benefit of reading Luke 18!  Leon Morris makes the observation:

Coming so soon after the emphatic statement about the difficulty of the salvation of the rich, this incident must be seen as a striking manifestation of God’s grace.

Not just a “striking manifestation,” but a powerful contrast, as we shall see.

Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through.  A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy.  (Luke 19:1, 2 | TNIV)

Our Lord was slowly making His way to Jerusalem for the last time. Jericho was a very prosperous trade city, located in the Jordan valley, some five miles from the Jordan River and about seventeen miles from Jerusalem. It’s location made Jericho an important city. Dead center on an important trade route, the world literally came through Jericho and, as some historians have noted, there was likely a large Roman custom house located there.

Jesus was just passing through this metropolis, but this gave a man by name of Zacchaeus a chance to see Him.  Apart from these ten verses in one Gospel, Zacchaeus is completely unknown to us.  All we know about him is found here.  He was short, and he was a “chief tax collector.”  That title is also unknown to us as it isn’t found anywhere else.  But we assume he was higher up the state revenue collection chain than the other tax collector we are familiar with, Levi.  As a matter of fact, Levi was probably the kind of man that Zacchaeus would have employed.  Oddly enough, given his scandalous occupation, Zacchaeus had a good name, for it meant “pure” or “righteous.”  

Jericho must have been the perfect location to be a tax collector.  It was very prosperous, full of people needing to pay their taxes and businessmen and tradesmen who also would have to fill Rome’s coffers with some of their hard-earned dollars.  It’s no wonder little Zacchaeus was rich.  He could hardly be anything else living and working in Jericho.  In spite of his great wealth, though, he likely had no social life.  Who would want to associate with a tax collector?

He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd.  So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.  (Luke 19:3, 4 | TNIV)

Somehow, his man heard of Jesus and wanted to see him. That was surely commendable.  But what was more commendable was that  Jesus wanted to see him!  That seems surprising to us, but it shouldn’t be.  Remember, Jesus had the “bad habit” of associating with people of questionable character: prostitutes, for example.  As much as prostitutes were hated and shunned by society, tax collectors were probably hated even more because nobody could really shun them!  Everybody would have to see the tax collector in order to pay his taxes.  

Zacchaeus had a problem. In addition to being a hated tax collector, he was short.  With the crowds surrounding Jesus as He walked through Jericho, how could a short fellow hope to see Jesus?  Zacchaeus didn’t become the chief tax collector for no good reason!  He thought of the perfect solution.  He would scamper up a tree.  Wouldn’t you have done that?  The fact that this grown man would do what a child would do reminds us the previous chapter, doesn’t it?  

But Jesus called the children to him and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”  (Luke 18:16 | TNIV)

He did what a child would have done.  Nobody would have made way for him, so he did what a child would have done.  

When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.”  (Luke 19:5 | TNIV)

Now we know why Jesus was passing through Jericho: the divine imperative.  He told Zacchaeus, “I must stay at your house today.”  He “must” stay at the tax collector’s house that very day.  Jesus had to talk to Zacchaeus.  Zacchaeus had an appointment to keep with the Son of God, even though he didn’t know it.  God was working in the background, for who knows how long, drawing this short collector to the place where he would have to face Jesus.  

So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.  (Luke 19:6 | TNIV)

That’s a remarkable sentence.  With all the speed he could muster, Zacchaeus, apparently without question, scrambled down the sycamore tree and welcomed Jesus gladly into his home.  Just a few minutes earlier, all Zacchaeus wanted was to catch a glimpse of Jesus, a man he had heard about, like so many others had heard about Him.  And all of a sudden, he’s opening up his home to this stranger!  You may not have done that.  I may not have done that.  But when God is working on a lost person’s heart, he will find himself doing what God desires him to do.  

All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”  (Luke 19:7 | TNIV)

You can always depend on your fellow man to misinterpret what he’s looking at if he’s looking at you.  They looked at Zacchaeus and all they saw was was a sinner. Jesus looked at Zacchaeus and He saw a sinner in need of saving.  

But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”  (Luke 19:8 | TNIV)

The word “but” seems out of place.  Older translations use the word “and,” but “but” is correct.  Luke used “but” to set what Zacchaeus did in contrast to the grumblers.  While onlookers murmured and grumbled about Jesus deigning to eat with a tax collector, Zacchaeus “stood up…”  There’s formal tone in about what he was about to say and do. He was almost standing at attention as he was about to say and do something of great import.  What he said was proof positive that Jesus’ visit to his home had changed him in dramatic fashion.  Dr Luke hasn’t told us that Jesus had told Zacchaeus to do any of what he was announcing he would do, but it’s telling that the tax collector, the man who took money from others legally and illegally, would make restitution and then some!  

This incredibly generous spirit and genuine desire to make right any past wrong shows how much this man’s heart had been changed by the Spirit of God.  The short speech Zacchaeus made, he made not to the people, but to Jesus.  This wasn’t an effort to convince anybody else that he was sincere.  It was the spontaneous response of a man who saw the wrong in his life and the necessity to make it right.  It was the response of a heart recreated and made clean and of a spirit given a new and eternal life.  He was willing to give half of his wealth away – suggesting that half of his wealth was gained in devious ways, and he would help the poor.  He said this of his own accord, not prompted by Jesus, as far as we know.  This is in sharp contrast to the rich, young ruler of the previous chapter, who wouldn’t give up his wealth to follow Jesus.  

Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.  For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.”  (Luke 19:9, 10 | TNIV)

This man was saved, not because of what he did, but because “this man, too, is a son of Abraham.”  Penance wasn’t what saved this man’s soul, it was because he was in solidarity Abraham, the man who experienced God’s free grace.  Zacchaeus became a true member of Abraham’s family, unlike those miserable grumblers and those who murmured about Jesus fellowshipping with a tax collector.  

And verse ten is the one of the most important verses in all the Bible and the key verse in Luke’s Gospel.  Jesus came to seek the lost.  In this case, the lost man Zacchaeus was seeking Jesus, and Jesus was seeking Zacchaeus. And as a result of all this seeking, salvation came to Zacchaeus’ house. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

7 Surprised People in the Bible, Part 5

Surprised Couple

 

In this study, there are a couple of surprised people, but if we can learn from their example, we ourselves will be spared a terrible surprise in the hereafter.  In the letter to the Hebrews, we read a truly chilling verse that each one of us should memorize and think about every day of our lives.

Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.  (Hebrews 4:13 | TNIV)

See what I mean?  Chilling!  Can you imagine standing before God knowing that He’s seen every thought you ever had?  Even the stray ones?  He’s seen everything you’ve ever done, even the things you did in secret?  A verse like that puts things into perspective, doesn’t it?  There isn’t a thing about you that God isn’t aware of.  He knows your wants and desires; good or bad He knows them.  He knows your ambitions and how you are planning on accomplishing them.  He knows what you’re afraid of and He knows what you’ll do before you do it.  This is true on a personal, micro scale, but it’s also true on the worldwide, macro scale.  What do you do with this information?  Hopefully it will lead you to think twice about doing something you’d be embarrassed about when having to give an account before God.  

Our surprised person is a person by the name of Hazael. Just who was this man?  Here’s what we know about him:

•He succeeded Ben Hadad as king of Syria, or Aram;

•We find him in a piece of extra Biblical history known as the Assyrian Annals, where he is called “the son of a nobody,” meaning he was a commoner.

•He was attacked often by the Assyrians.

•He often attacked Israel, the Northern Kingdom, usually after an Assyrian attack.

He was a shifty character who caused no end of trouble for the Israelites.  But how he came to the throne is surprising.  

The Lord said to him, “Go back the way you came, and go to the Desert of Damascus. When you get there, anoint Hazael king over Aram.  (1 Kings 19:15 | TNIV)

It sounds like a cake walk; a simple task.  All the prophet Elijah had to do was walk “from here to there” and anoint some fellow by the name of Hazael as king over Syria.  Of course, it’s a little more complicated than that.  The Desert of Damascus was enemy territory.  And for that matter, what did God have to do with a pagan country and their politics?  Apparently everything if you believe the Bible.

It is God who judges: He brings one down, he exalts another.  (Psalm 75:7 | TNIV)

Praise be to the name of God for ever and ever; wisdom and power are his.  He changes times and seasons; he deposes kings and raises up others. He gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to the discerning.  (Daniel 2:20, 21 | TNIV)

Do you refuse to speak to me?” Pilate said. “Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?”  Jesus answered, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.”  (John 19:10, 11 | TNIV)

There’s no denying the sovereignty of God in the politics of the world.  We may not like it, but there it is.  

Even though Elijah was tasked with the job of “anointing” Hazael king of Syria, it would be up to his successor, Elisha, to do it.  We don’t have a record of God directing Elisha to go into Syrian territory.  It sounds like a coincidence; that he just happened to have found himself suddenly across the border.  But with God, of course, there are no coincidences.  Elisha was simply being obedient to the will of God.  Clearly, he thought obeying God was more important that fearing the enemy.  Like his mentor, Elisha had a “heavenly perspective.”  That is, he lived with eternity always in view.  Do you live like that?  Is heaven that real to you?  Does your eternal destination dictate how you live on earth, your temporary home?  C.S. Lewis once wrote:

If you read history, you will discover that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next.… They all left their mark on Earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’; aim at earth and you get neither.

It may well be that one of the reasons why so many believers today live such spiritually anemic lives is because their aim is at earth, not heaven.  

Elisha went to Damascus, and Ben-Hadad king of Aram was ill. When the king was told, “The man of God has come all the way up here,” he said to Hazael, “Take a gift with you and go to meet the man of God. Consult the Lord through him; ask him, ‘Will I recover from this illness?’ ”  (2 Kings 8:7, 8 | TNIV)

There was no earthly reason for the prophet Elisha to cross the border into Aram, or Syria, so obviously he is there for a heavenly reason.  Since Elijah didn’t have a chance to anoint Hazael as king, the duty fell on Elisha, and Elisha was up to the task.  The “anointing” probably wasn’t a ceremony where oil was poured over the candidate, but rather it was a way to show Hazael that it was God who was ultimately in charge; that he would sit on the throne because God was going to allow it to happen.  In non-Biblcal historical accounts of this time, Hazael is known, in addition to being the “son of a nobody,” as being a usurper; someone who rose to power by very devious means.  How he attained the throne is irrelevant.  God knew he would be sitting on that throne and He wanted him to know that He knew what was going to happen.

Ben Hadad was sick enough that he thought he was going to die – that whatever his illness was, it was terminal.  When a man thinks he’s going to die, he’ll do what it takes to either avoid it or prepare for the day when it finally happens.  The fact that he was willing to take Elisha at his word shows just how “famous” this prophet was.  Even the pagan Ben Hadad would take the prophet’s word as truth.  

Hazael went to meet Elisha, taking with him as a gift forty camel-loads of all the finest wares of Damascus. He went in and stood before him, and said, “Your son Ben-Hadad king of Aram has sent me to ask, ‘Will I recover from this illness?’ ”  (1 Kings 8:9 | TNIV)

Ben Hadad’s over-the-top gifts to Elisha showed the tremendous respect this Syrian king had for the prophet of God.  Not only that, the fact that he would go to such trouble suggests that he had been very impressed with the power of Israel’s God over the years.  Some scholars have suggested that Ben Hadad had actually been converted to Yahweh.  Is that possible?  Maybe, but at the very least, at this occasion he was willing to take a chance on God – the true God, instead of on his nation’s deity, Baal.  That old saw, “There are no atheists in foxholes,” rings true most of the time.

Can you imagine how impressive 40 camel-loads “of every good thing of Damascus” must have been?  It’s speculation, of course, but it’s likely the camels were carrying such goods as apricots and dates, other foods, arms, some furniture and probably some kind of wine.  

That curious designation, “your son, Ben Hadad,” sounds strange to our Western ears, but it’s really proper spiritual protocol.  The king is showing the prophet all the respect he is due; like that of a son for his father.  Ben Hadad, sworn enemy of Israel, had been backed into a corner by his fear of death that he saw Yahweh and His prophet as his only hope.  

Elisha answered, “Go and say to him, ‘You will certainly recover.’ Nevertheless, the Lord has revealed to me that he will in fact die.”  He stared at him with a fixed gaze until Hazael was embarrassed. Then the man of God began to weep.  (2 Kings 8:10, 11 | TNIV)

Had Elisha stopped at verse 10, Ben Hadad would have been one happy pagan king.  As it turned out, whatever malady he was suffering from wasn’t terminal at all.  Eventually, nature would take its course and he would get better.  But the prophet added that God had shown him that Ben Hadad would, in fact, die.  The king’s time on earth was short, but it wouldn’t be the illness that would be the cause of his death.

Why did Elisha begin to cry at the revelation God had shown him?  As he stared at Hazael, we can conclude that God had revealed to him that the servant would ruthlessly assassinate his king, Ben Hadad.  Is that what made him cry?  Partly.  There was no love between Israel and Syria and certainly Elisha had no love for Hazael.  The problem was – what made the prophet cry – was that as bad as Ben Hadad was, Hazael would prove to be much worse.  He would be the scourge of Israel for many years.  

Why is my lord weeping?” asked Hazael. “Because I know the harm you will do to the Israelites,” he answered. “You will set fire to their fortified places, kill their young men with the sword, dash their little children to the ground, and rip open their pregnant women.”  Hazael said, “How could your servant, a mere dog, accomplish such a feat?” “The Lord has shown me that you will become king of Aram,” answered Elisha.  (2 Kings 8:12, 13 | TNIV)

The result of Hazel’s battles against Israel and even Judah was disastrous to say the least.  King Joram of Israel and King Ahaziah of Judah once fought the forces of Hazael at Romath-gilead, where they were soundly defeated.  After the murder of Joram by Jehu, again Israel had to defend itself against the forces of Damascus, and again without success.  Eventually, he would invade Judah and cart off the treasures of the Judean palace and temple.  Israel had largely been rendered helpless by the mighty forces of Hazael and probably reduced to vassalage.

For now though, Hazael in genuine surprise must have wondered how this man could read his mind.  But this was no parlor trick; this was the work of the Lord whereby His prophet was given a supernatural insight into the inner workings of deceitful Hazael’s mind.  

Then Hazael left Elisha and returned to his master. When Ben-Hadad asked, “What did Elisha say to you?” Hazael replied, “He told me that you would certainly recover.”  But the next day he took a thick cloth, soaked it in water and spread it over the king’s face, so that he died. Then Hazael succeeded him as king.  (2 Kings 8:14, 15 | TNIV)

And once again, Elisha the prophet’s word came to pass.  Certainly Ben Hadad was surprised by this turn of events.  And Hazael was also surprised that a mere man could know the what was in his mind and his immediate future.

There are some fascinating things about this story.  First, the actions of Ben Hadad.  This was not a good man.  He was evil and did a lot of harm to Israel and God’s people.  In fact, he tried to have Elisha killed. Yet here he was, afraid that he was facing his own death, he reached out to the one man from whom he know he’d hear the truth.  As a Christian, you may annoy people with your faith.  Non-believers may mock you and tease you on account of your faith,  But when disaster strikes, the Christian is one those people will turn to.  Will you be up to it?

Second, Elisha knew Israel was doomed; he knew the future was bleak.  The Israelites had routinely abandoned Yahweh in favor of worshiping the idols of surrounding nations.  Idolatry with all of its attendant perversities seemed to fascinate the Israelites to the point where they just couldn’t stop their sin.  And yet, Elisha wept for his people.  In spite of their hopeless addiction to sin and rebellion, his heart ached for them.  This is a revealing look at the heart of God’s man.  And this is the kind of person God is looking to use today.  There’s nothing more frustrating than dealing with God’s people who know better, yet who continue to do things they shouldn’t be doing.  Are you like Elisha?  Do you weep over the state of God’s people, or is your attitude more like that of Elijah, Elisha’s mentor, who was so discouraged he just wanted to curl up and die?  

The prophet Elisha was able, somehow, to focus on that “still, small voice” and he kept on keeping on in spite of the fact that his people were seldom in his corner and weren’t all that interested in hearing what he had to say.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

7 Surprised People in the Bible, Part 4

 

By the end of 1 Kings 21, a lot of people were surprised by the curious turn of events.  King Ahab of Israel, the northern kingdom, was not a good king.  He was, however, an able king.  He is described as being a “statesman” by historians.  His wife, though, had very little to recommend her.  Jezebel was evil through and through.  King Ahab might have been quite the warrior and statesman, but he was a weak man who let Jezebel walk all over him.  

Ahab had secured an impressive victory against Syria and following on the heels of that, comes the darkest deed of his reign.  It’s interesting how the Bible orders events to make sure readers understand that in spite of a godless king’s professional good points and positive accomplishments, those things are never enough to compensate for his moral and religious failings.  Such was the case Ahab when, after the high of victory, the king sees Naboth’s vineyard and wants it.  

Ahab said to Naboth, “Let me have your vineyard to use for a vegetable garden, since it is close to my palace. In exchange I will give you a better vineyard or, if you prefer, I will pay you whatever it is worth.”. (1 Kings 21:2 | TNIV)

Naboth refused to sell the king his private property – his ancestral landholdings.  The king was helpless; Jewish law and tradition trumped his desire.  But Jezebel, who wasn’t a Jew, had no such respect for the law or tradition.  She bribed a couple of losers to accuse Naboth of treason.  The frame stuck and poor, innocent Naboth was summarily executed and his vineyard was confiscated by the king, as was the custom of dealing with traitors.

When you take a step back and take a look at these events, you can’t help by reminded of King David and his obsession: Bathsheba.  Like Naboth’s vineyard, Uriah’s wife Bathsheba became the desire of the king, and like Ahab, David did what it took to get what he wanted.  And as Nathan appeared on the scene to confront David, so the prophet Elijah confronted Ahab over his and Jezebel’s sinful actions.

He says, ‘I am going to bring disaster on you. I will wipe out your descendants and cut off from Ahab every last male in Israel—slave or free.  I will make your house like that of Jeroboam son of Nebat and that of Baasha son of Ahijah, because you have aroused my anger and have caused Israel to sin.’  “And also concerning Jezebel the Lord says: ‘Dogs will devour Jezebel by the wall of Jezreel.’  “Dogs will eat those belonging to Ahab who die in the city, and the birds will feed on those who die in the country.”  (1 Kings 21:21 – 24 | TNIV)

It took a while, but Jezebel met her end in 2 Kings exactly as prophesied.  She had no regard for the Jewish faith or traditions and had no belief in Yahweh.  But Yahweh and His law still applied to even her, a person who had no belief in them.  Boy, was she surprised.  

Coming to back to her husband, King Ahab, you’ll recall, seemed as though he came to his senses and regretted his sinful ways.  

When Ahab heard these words, he tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and fasted. He lay in sackcloth and went around meekly.  Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite:  “Have you noticed how Ahab has humbled himself before me? Because he has humbled himself, I will not bring this disaster in his day, but I will bring it on his house in the days of his son.”  (1 Kings 21:27 – 29 | TNIV)

You may doubt Ahab’s sincerity, but God didn’t.  But that didn’t mean Ahab repented and changed his wicked, wicked ways.  He didn’t, and would face his surprising end in the last chapter of 1 Kings.  

Some background

For three years there was no war between Aram and Israel.  But in the third year Jehoshaphat king of Judah went down to see the king of Israel.  The king of Israel had said to his officials, “Don’t you know that Ramoth Gilead belongs to us and yet we are doing nothing to retake it from the king of Aram?”  So he asked Jehoshaphat, “Will you go with me to fight against Ramoth Gilead?” Jehoshaphat replied to the king of Israel, “I am as you are, my people as your people, my horses as your horses.”  (1 Kings 22:1 – 4 | TNIV)

In the final years of Ahab’s reign, Israel was strong enough to exert some influence over Judah to the south and Syria.  In 875 BC, the year Ahab took the throne in Israel, King Asa in Judah died and his son, Jehoshaphat assumed the throne.  The long running war between Judah and Israel wasn’t doing Judah any good, so King Jehoshaphat ended it and sued for peace between the Judah and Israel.  He also sought an alliance between the Kingdoms and friendship with Ahab.  

Why in the world would a good king like Jehoshaphat make an alliance with a king as wicked as Ahab?  Why would he “get in bed” with his natural enemy?  From a Biblical standpoint, this alliance was abnormal; unnatural.  It was definitely a case of being “unequally yoked.”  So, at this point in the story, it’s more than strange.  Later on, we find out that Jehoram, the son of King Jehoshaphat, had married Athaliah, the daughter of King Ahab and Jezebel.  Well, that explains it all!  As Dr McGee notes, 

This was a case of the “sons of God marrying the daughters of men; a boy with a godly heritage married a girl with a wicked on.

And is always the case, it was the wicked influence that prevailed.  It’s a fact.  Holy never rubs off on unholy, which is why believers should never marry outside of the faith.   When a believer marries an unbeliever, the believer always gets into trouble.  Again, Dr McGee puts in a way only he can:

When you marry a child of the Devil, your father–in–law sees to it that you have trouble.

With Jehoshaphat’s military now free from involvement with Israelite skirmishes, the king of Judah turned his attention southward, intent on expanding the borders of the southern kingdom and hopefully open up King Solomon’s old trade route on the Red Sea, Judah’s only gateway to the outside world.  Unfortunately, he was unsuccessful.  King Ahab offered his help but was refused.  Apparently King Jehoshaphat didn’t want to get too entangled with this godless king.  

Meanwhile, King Ahab, though successful in his war with Syria, wasn’t content with the present situation.  A piece of Israelite territory remained within Syrian borders, and so Ahab approached Jehoshaphat with a plan to recapture this land.  This time, Jehoshaphat relented.  

Battle of the prophets

But Jehoshaphat also said to the king of Israel, “First seek the counsel of the Lord.”  So the king of Israel brought together the prophets—about four hundred men—and asked them, “Shall I go to war against Ramoth Gilead, or shall I refrain?” “Go,” they answered, “for the Lord will give it into the king’s hand.”  (1 Kings 22:5, 6 | TNIV)

King Jehoshaphat was God’s man, though being far from perfect, and he should have sought the Lord before agreeing to do battle with Ahab against Ramoth Gilead.  Like a lot of Christians, he got it backwards.  How often do we determine to do such-and-such a thing, begin it, and then seek the Lord?  Living life in that order almost always ends badly.  The apostle Paul, writing to the Colossians, gives us a great piece of advice that we’d be wise to follow.

For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you. We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives…  (Colossians 1:9 | TNIV)

Once we have been filled “with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives,” then – and only then – can we make wise choices that will result in our success and God’s glorification.  Life would be so much easier for us if we’d learn to get the order right rather than hoping God will, somehow, sanction our choice.

Just who were the prophets Ahab consulted?  Some scholars associate these 400 prophets with the survivors of the slaughter of the Baal’s prophets at Mount Carmel. That may be true.  But it seems more likely these were prophets of Israel’s now perverted version of Judaism, which mixed elements of Baal and Asherah worship with the worship of Yahweh.  To these prophets, their “ministry” was more of a career than a calling and their so-called prophecies were almost always confirming what their inquirers wanted to hear.  This was the case with Ahab.  According to the 400 “prophets” of Israel, God was all for the military action.

But, King Jehoshaphat wasn’t convinced.  He didn’t trust their “sunshine-and-roses” prophecy and sought a true prophet of Yahweh.

But Jehoshaphat asked, “Is there no longer a prophet of the Lord here whom we can inquire of?” The king of Israel answered Jehoshaphat, “There is still one through whom we can inquire of the Lord, but I hate him because he never prophesies anything good about me, but always bad. He is Micaiah son of Imlah.” “The king should not say such a thing,” Jehoshaphat replied.  (1 Kings 22:7, 8 | TNIV)

Ahab’s attitude toward Micaiah, son of Imlah, shows that he hadn’t really changed from one chapter to the next.  Like always, he was in complete opposition to the true prophets of God, especially this time, because to Ahab’s mind, conquering Ramoth Gilead should have been easy, after all, God had given him victory over Syria the last time (chapter 20).  

There’s an important lesson here for the Christian.  We’re tempted to believe that if a majority of other believers, like a church for example, thinks one way about certain subject while there are one or two contrary views, that the two contrarians are wrong and the majority right.  That’s not always the case.  Here, all the prophets said one thing while a single prophet said something else.  This is why it’s so important to have the “mind of Christ” when making a decision.  Often times, within the faith, the majority is correct.  But sometimes it may not be.  In this case, since the incident on Mt Carmel, the truth had always rested with the minority, not the majority.

When he arrived, the king asked him, “Micaiah, shall we go to war against Ramoth Gilead, or not?” “Attack and be victorious,” he answered, “for the Lord will give it into the king’s hand.”. (1Kings 22:15 | TNIV)

We know absolutely nothing about this true man of God, Micaiah, other than he had a sense of humor.  He messed with Ahab’s head by appearing to go along with the false prophets.  

Ahab’s reaction is just as funny, and may have indicated that deep down inside, he knew that the troublesome Micaiah would be a straight shooter and give him an accurate word.

The king said to him, “How many times must I make you swear to tell me nothing but the truth in the name of the Lord?”  (1 Kings 22:16 | TNIV)

As it turned out, Micaiah’s word from God was the exact opposite to what the other prophets gave.

Then Micaiah answered, “I saw all Israel scattered on the hills like sheep without a shepherd, and the Lord said, ‘These people have no master. Let each one go home in peace.’ ” The king of Israel said to Jehoshaphat, “Didn’t I tell you that he never prophesies anything good about me, but only bad?”  (1 Kings 22:17, 18 | TNIV)

Ahab didn’t want to hear this prophecy, but as I mentioned, I think he already knew that this prophet was right.  Micaiah, though, didn’t stop with dispensing the Word of the Lord.  He was like a man who had God’s Word bottled up inside, and once it started flowing out of him, he couldn’t stop.  He went on to expose the 400 prophets as false and completely useless.  

“So now the Lord has put a lying spirit in the mouths of all these prophets of yours. The Lord has decreed disaster for you.”  (1 Kings 22:23 | TNIV)

One thing about the Word of God, it will cause a reaction!  Either a positive one or a negative one, you may be sure that when God’s Word is preached without compromise and with conviction, something will happen.  

The king of Israel then ordered, “Take Micaiah and send him back to Amon the ruler of the city and to Joash the king’s son and say, ‘This is what the king says: Put this fellow in prison and give him nothing but bread and water until I return safely.’ ”  Micaiah declared, “If you ever return safely, the Lord has not spoken through me.” Then he added, “Mark my words, all you people!”  (1 Kings 22:26 – 28 | TNIV)

Micaiah the true prophet of God ended up back in prison on a diet of hard tack and water for his faithful service to God.  But he did get the last word.  

What would you, as a Christian do, if you encountered “dueling prophets” like this?  Is there a sure way to discover who the true spokesman for God is and who is the false prophet?  In the story, both Zedekiah and Micaiah claimed to be prophets of God.  They both claimed their messages were the real deal.  Both claimed to be speaking for God.  But how can you know for sure?  When somebody says, “God told me,” should we just take them at their word?

Church tradition has claimed that “the church” is the ultimate authority in such matters.  Philosophers believe that human reason should tell us truth from lies.  Then there are Christians who trust the various Creeds of the Church as the authoritative norm for all Christian beliefs and behavior.  Then there is a growing number of Christians who believe that the Holy Spirit directly speaks to the believer’s heart and that He will enable them to discern the truth.  In other words, personal experience is the determinative factor in faith and practice.  

In a sense, all these views have merit and are correct.  Many horrible things have happened in Church history when some church leader claimed, “This is God’s will” or “God told me to do it,” when God really didn’t at all.  Or when opportunities were missed because church leaders couldn’t find a precident in their Book of Church order.  

John Calvin, the butt of so many jokes, did teach something very helpful in matters like this.  There most certainly is a vital relationship between the objective authority of the Word of God and the subjective authority of the Holy Spirit’s inner witness.  Calvin believed that the Spirit’s “inner voice” is always consistent with the Word of God and that the Word is always confirmed in a person’s heart by the Spirit of God. 

Ideally, religious authority must be both objective and subjective, grounded in the witness both of the Word and the Spirit. John Calvin made a valuable contribution to Christian thought with his emphasis on the relationship between the Scriptures (objective authority) and the inner witness of the Holy Spirit (subjective authority). He taught that the Holy Spirit’s inward voice is always consistent with the objective word of revelation, and conversely, that the authority of the word is affirmed through the Holy Spirit’s witness in the heart of the believer.

The end is nigh

In spite of Micaiah’s warning, the two kings prepared their respective armies for a head on assault at Ramoth Gilead.  It was customary for kings to wear their official robes in battle, but Ahab, perhaps giving some credence to Micaiah’s prophecy, disguised himself.  Jehoshaphat, on the other hand, dressed in his royal best, probably thinking his life was in God’s hands anyway, no matter what happened.  Naturally, God couldn’t be fooled by Ahab’s silly disguise.  

Meanwhile, behind enemy lines, the Syrian king had plans of his own.

Now the king of Aram had ordered his thirty-two chariot commanders, “Do not fight with anyone, small or great, except the king of Israel.”  When the chariot commanders saw Jehoshaphat, they thought, “Surely this is the king of Israel.” So they turned to attack him, but when Jehoshaphat cried out, the chariot commanders saw that he was not the king of Israel and stopped pursuing him.

Ahab wasn’t an idiot.  He was a godless man, but he was skilled at warfare.  It could have been that his disguise was not just for self-protection.  It may have been part of a larger military strategy designed to trick the Syrians.  He may have suspected Ben Hadad’s plan, and with the king disguised that plan would keep the enemy distracted long enough for Ahab to make a sneak attack.  

That sounds like a good plan, and it would have worked had it not been for an accident.  A single Syrian archer made a mistake.  Or so it seemed.  In God’s economy, there are no accidents.

But someone drew his bow at random and hit the king of Israel between the breastplate and the scale armor. The king told his chariot driver, “Wheel around and get me out of the fighting. I’ve been wounded.”  (1 Kings 22:34 | TNIV)

Ahab had been mortally wounded, likely in the stomach.  He may not have known it, but he was already dead.  He ordered his driver to take him out of the battle.  What was in Ahab’s mind?  Some think that he wanted to seek medical attention, but because of the intensity of the battle there was no way to do that, so he was forced to watch from the sidelines.  Others think the king wanted to appear to be unhurt so as not to discourage his army.  Regardless of the reason, poor old Ahab spent the remainder of the day propped up, like a dummy, in his chariot, facing the Syrians, as his lifeblood ebbed away.  Ahab had spared Ben Hadad’s life, and now he paid for that mercy with his own.  As the sun was going down, word spread that King Ahab was dead and the Israelite-Judean troops retreated.

So the king died and was brought to Samaria, and they buried him there.  They washed the chariot at a pool in Samaria (where the prostitutes bathed), and the dogs licked up his blood, as the word of the Lord had declared.  (1 Kings 22:37, 38 | TNIV)

In the end, Elijah’s prophecy came true.  Was Ahab surprised by the incredible coincidence of being his by stray arrow?  Maybe.  But I suspect he knew his end as decreed by the unknown prophet, Elijah, and Micaiah would eventually come to pass.  Ahab was not a good man, and his life and death are a testimony to the fact that nobody can outrun God’s plans for them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

7 Surprised People in the Bible, Part 3

 

Our third person in the Bible who got the surprise of his life is a fellow by the name of Ahab.  Long before a certain Captain Ahab became obsessed with Moby Dick, King Ahab was doing his best to ruin the kingdom of Israel.  His surprise, although it shouldn’t have been a surprise at all, came from the prophet Elijah.  Ahab and Elijah weren’t exactly friends.  In 1 Kings 18, they meet up and here’s how that went down:

So Obadiah went to meet Ahab and told him, and Ahab went to meet Elijah.  When he saw Elijah, he said to him, “Is that you, you troubler of Israel?”  “I have not made trouble for Israel,” Elijah replied. “But you and your father’s family have. You have abandoned the Lord’s commands and have followed the Baals.  (1 Kings 18:16 – 18 | TNIV)

If you recall, Elijah the prophet issued a lopsided challenge:

Now summon the people from all over Israel to meet me on Mount Carmel. And bring the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and the four hundred prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table.”  Then Elijah said to them, “I am the only one of the Lord’s prophets left, but Baal has four hundred and fifty prophets.  Get two bulls for us. Let Baal’s prophets choose one for themselves, and let them cut it into pieces and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. I will prepare the other bull and put it on the wood but not set fire to it.  Then you call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the Lord. The god who answers by fire—he is God.” Then all the people said, “What you say is good.” (1 Kings 18:19, 22 – 24 | TNIV)

And the fire fell and it ended very badly for the prophets of Baal.  To say they and all the people were surprised would be an understatement!

Then the fire of the Lord fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench.  When all the people saw this, they fell prostrate and cried, “The Lord—he is God! The Lord—he is God!”  (1 Kings 18:38, 39 | TNIV)

I’d say a lot of people underestimated the God of Elijah, including King Ahab.  But the root of sin and idolatry run deep, and Ahab remained a godless leader of God’s people.  This wasn’t his last run-in with the “troubler of Israel.”  In chapter 21, the hapless king has his eyes on a vineyard.  It seems like vineyards caused a lot of problems for some Israelites back in Old Testament times.  You’ll recall Elisha’s assistant, Gehazi, wanted a vineyard and in pursuit of his dream of owning one, was surprised when he caught a terminal case of leprosy.  Let’s take a look at how wanting a vineyard resulted in some unintended consequences for evil King Ahab.

Naboth says no.

You have to hand it to Naboth.  It took some nerve to stand up to King Ahab like he did!

But Naboth replied, “The Lord forbid that I should give you the inheritance of my ancestors.”  (1 Kings 21:3 | TNIV)

Naboth wasn’t being difficult.  Ahab had offered him a fair price for his vineyard; it’s not like he was going to steal it.  Naboth was well within his rights to turn the king down. The concept of “private property rights” didn’t originate with Americans!  This concept was enshrined in Jewish religious and civil law.  And the king knew it.  He knew that Naboth was right; that he was legally and religiously obligated to hold onto this piece of land.  Still, the king wanted what he wanted.  As one scholar rightly observed,

The only thing worse than a spoiled, pouting child is a spoiled, pouting adult.

Ahab the man-child pouted and pouted until his wife noticed.

Jezebel’s plot.

Jezebel his wife said, “Is this how you act as king over Israel? Get up and eat! Cheer up. I’ll get you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite.”  (2 Kings 21:7 | TNIV)

Jezebel was a real piece of work.  Thoroughly evil, her name has become synonymous with wanton and scheming women.  There’s a good reason why nobody names their baby girl “Jezebel!”  Throughout our culture, even, songs have been written about wicked Jezebel by such notables as, Frankie Lane, Sade, 10,000 Maniacs, Chely Wright, and Iron and Wine (?!).  She wasn’t a Jew and was just one of many wives of the gormless King Ahab.  But she definitely wore the pants in the family.  She had no use for the customs, traditions and laws of Israel.  When Ahab didn’t simply seize Naboth’s land outright, she just couldn’t understand why not, so she hatched a truly diabolical plot involving the Sons of Belial (KJV).

So she wrote letters in Ahab’s name, placed his seal on them, and sent them to the elders and nobles who lived in Naboth’s city with him.  In those letters she wrote: “Proclaim a day of fasting and seat Naboth in a prominent place among the people.  But seat two scoundrels opposite him and have them bring charges that he has cursed both God and the king. Then take him out and stone him to death.”  (1 Kings 21:8 – 10 | TNIV)

Sadly, the plan worked to perfection and poor Naboth was stoned to death according to the Law and Ahab got his vineyard.

When Ahab heard that Naboth was dead, he got up and went down to take possession of Naboth’s vineyard.  (1 Kings 21:16 | TNIV)

Ahab will soon learn what a lot of us have learned the hard way: The wanting is often better than the having.

Evil deeds are judged.

Ahab and Jezebel lived a lifetime of wickedness, idolatry and sin.  They were a thoroughly nasty couple.  It took a long time, but they are about to learn the truthfulness of a verse back in Numbers.

“But if you fail to do this, you will be sinning against the Lord; and you may be sure that your sin will find you out.”  (Numbers 32:23 | TNIV)

“Be sure your sin will find you out.”  Interestingly enough, the context of Numbers 32:23 is surprising.  The “sin” would be the men of Israel not arming themselves for battle to protect their families.

Then Moses said to them, “If you will do this—if you will arm yourselves before the Lord for battle…”  (Numbers 32:20 | TNIV)

I throw that in for the benefit of the pacifists reading this study.  It’s surprising that not fighting on behalf of your family is such a dreadful sin against God.  At any rate, thanks to Jezebel’s trickery, Ahab finally got Naboth’s vineyard.  But what this couple failed to realize was that Naboth had invoked Yahweh’s Name and His Law when he declined Ahab in the first place.  So, when Jezebel and Ahab snookered Naboth and killed him, they were picking a fight with God Himself.  That never ends well for anybody.

Meanwhile, back Elijah’s place, the Lord called His prophet back into action.

“Go down to meet Ahab king of Israel, who rules in Samaria. He is now in Naboth’s vineyard, where he has gone to take possession of it.  Say to him, ‘This is what the Lord says: Have you not murdered a man and seized his property?’ Then say to him, ‘This is what the Lord says: In the place where dogs licked up Naboth’s blood, dogs will lick up your blood—yes, yours!’ ”  (1 Kings 21:18, 19 | TNIV)

The Lord had accused Ahab of two sins: Murder and theft of private property.  Both were awful crimes in Israelite society.  And typical of God’s justice, the punishment would fit the crime(s).  The prophet of the Lord caught up with Ahab at the vineyard.

Ahab said to Elijah, “So you have found me, my enemy!” “I have found you,” he answered, “because you have sold yourself to do evil in the eyes of the Lord.”  (1 Kings 21:20 | TNIV)

Poor old Ahab couldn’t get anything right.  He had previously accused Elijah of being the “troubler of Israel” when, in reality, he himself was the one causing all the problems among God’s people.  Here he accuses Elijah of being his enemy, but in truth Ahab was his own worst enemy.  Judgment was about to fall hard on this strange king of Israel, but his coming trouble would be the result of his actions, not Elijah’s.  The one who sells himself out to sin, as Ahab did, brings awful consequences crashing down on himself and often times others associated with him.

I will make your house like that of Jeroboam son of Nebat and that of Baasha son of Ahijah, because you have aroused my anger and have caused Israel to sin.’  (1 Kings 21:22 | TNIV)

The evil of Ahab went way beyond the murder of Naboth, but something far more nefarious – his promotion of apostasy in the Israel.  For that crime of crimes, his punishment would be like that of the two losers in verse 22, Nebat and Baasha.  God would literally erase the house of Ahab from the face of the earth.  Every single male descendant of Ahab would be die.

As for Jezebel, her fate would be horrible indeed.

 “And also concerning Jezebel the Lord says: ‘Dogs will devour Jezebel by the wall of Jezreel.’”  (1 Kings 21:23 | TNIV)

Ahab’s change of heart

Elijah wasn’t the first prophet in the land to warn Ahab about his sinful ways.  Back in chapter 20, an unnamed prophet confronted the king.

He said to the king, “This is what the Lord says: ‘You have set free a man I had determined should die. Therefore it is your life for his life, your people for his people.’ ”  (1 Kings 20:42 | TNIV)

And with Elijah’s much more detailed pronouncement of judgment, the Lord finally got the king’s attention.  Today’s society has become a very secular one, with religious monuments, like crosses and nativity scenes, falling out of favor because of one or two disgruntled atheists or the like, and inexplicably the secularism that has swept across the land has crept into the church and found a home behind the pulpit.  It’s not that preachers don’t preach about God, but they don’t preach a whole lot about Hell and damnation anymore. Preachers are afraid to offend members of their church and people are much too sophisticated to hear such things these days.  However, one of the major themes found across the Testaments is that God is a God of judgment and that He has judged people in the past and He will judge all people; all people who have ever lived will eventually stand before the Lord to give account of the lives they lived.  God’s judgment of man’s sins seems slow in coming, but it is coming, make no mistake about it.  That reality was brought home to King Ahab when Elijah preached the whole, unvarnished truth of judgment to him.  

What followed was a surprising turn-of-events.  

When Ahab heard these words, he tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and fasted. He lay in sackcloth and went around meekly.  (1 Kings 21:27 | TNIV)

Who’d have thought this would ever happen?  You and I might be tempted to think that old King Ahab was trying to pull a fast one here.  It would certainly be more consistent with his personality.  And yet, the Lord saw that Ahab was earnest.  That’s surprising!  Because of the king’s change of heart, the Lord got in contact with Elijah:

Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite: “Have you noticed how Ahab has humbled himself before me? Because he has humbled himself, I will not bring this disaster in his day, but I will bring it on his house in the days of his son.”  (1 Kings 21:28, 29 | TNIV)

Because he had genuinely humbled himself, the promised judgment would be delayed.  However, Jezebel would receive no such “stay of execution.”  Her end comes in 2 Kings 8, a watershed chapter in which the dynasty of Omri, including his descendant Ahab, would be brought to an end and a new dynasty is seen rising under Jehu.  What Elisha prophesied in 1 Kings 21 is finally fulfilled completely in 2 Kings 8.

Then Jehu went to Jezreel. When Jezebel heard about it, she painted her eyes, arranged her hair and looked out of a window.  As Jehu entered the gate, she asked, “Have you come in peace, you Zimri, you murderer of your master?”  He looked up at the window and called out, “Who is on my side? Who?” Two or three eunuchs looked down at him.  “Throw her down!” Jehu said. So they threw her down, and some of her blood spattered the wall and the horses as they trampled her underfoot.  Jehu went in and ate and drank. “Take care of that cursed woman,” he said, “and bury her, for she was a king’s daughter.”  But when they went out to bury her, they found nothing except her skull, her feet and her hands.  (2 Kings 9:30 – 35 | TNIV)

As for Ahab, we’ll cover what happened to him in the next study.  For now, though, the story of Ahab is surprising on so many levels.  He was surprised that Elijah had tracked him down yet again!  How that “troubler of Israel” must have gotten under his skin!  And yet, thanks to the his straight forward, non-sugarcoated preaching, Ahab was given break, at least for a while.  The Lord in His patience would put up with Ahab a little longer.  However, it’s obvious from “the rest of the story” that Ahab’s character didn’t change a bit.  Like another ruler in the New Testament, Ahab was “almost persuaded” to change, but a genuine conversion didn’t take place.  This incident shows us a surprising side of God’s grace: He deals in boundless mercy even with a thankless, thoughtless generation.

The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.  (2 Peter 3:9 | TNIV)

Ahab, through his entire life, proved that he was completely loyal to Baal, not Yahweh.  He was, as one scholar noted, the King Solomon of the Northern Kingdom, whose own marriage to a foreign wife led Israel into idolatry, which would be the cause of the kingdom’s destruction.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

7 Surprised People in the Bible, Part 2

God loves to surprise people.  Sometimes surprises are good, sometimes not.  In the case of Gehazi, Elisha’s servant, his surprise wasn’t so hot.  He was a servant with ambition.  He wanted to own a vineyard and have servants, but what he got was a terminal case of leprosy that he passed on to his whole family.  Gehazi learned the hard way that you can’t keep anything from God.  He was surprised, all right, and I imagine his family was, too.

But God has a long history of surprising people.  Take the case of young Samuel, priest in training.  Once, in the middle of the night, the Lord came and surprised him.

And the Lord said to Samuel: “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make the ears of everyone who hears about it tingle.”  (1 Samuel 3:11 | TNIV)

It sounds like everybody in Israel was about to be surprised by something the Lord was about to do, but really it was Samuel who was surprised.  Young Samuel was being raised to be a priest in God’s house by Eli, the high priest.  And God’s message to Samuel was a whopper.  Eli had taken the boy in, blessed his parents, was teaching him to minister in the temple and had helped him to discern and understand the voice of God, yet God’s surprising message was one against the house of Eli.  It was a harsh, hard word that must have been difficult for the young fellow to grasp, let alone accept.  In fact, we read this:

Samuel lay down until morning and then opened the doors of the house of the Lord. He was afraid to tell Eli the vision…  (1 Samuel 3:15 | TNIV)

Eli may or may not have been an effective priest, but he certainly did well by Samuel.  As a father, though, he failed miserably.  His two sons, who were also priests, were really scoundrels of the worst sort and apparently Eli did nothing about their sinful behavior.  He urged Samuel to tell him what the Word from God was, and Eli’s reaction was, well, quite surprising considering.  

So Samuel told him everything, hiding nothing from him. Then Eli said, “He is the Lord; let him do what is good in his eyes.”  (1 Samuel 3:18 | TNIV)

Samuel was surprised.  The people of Israel would be surprised.  Eli’s sons were going to be surprised.  And we’re surprised by Eli’s reaction.  It seems the only person who wasn’t surprised was the hapless Eli, who upon hearing that God was going to essentially wipe out his entire family on account of their sins just shrugged his shoulders and accepted the Word from God without so much as the slightest surprise.

Yes, our God is a God surprises, good surprises and bad ones.  Another person who was really surprised by the Lord was a man by the name of Nathanael.  His response to an incredible surprise is found in the first chapter of John’s Gospel.

Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.”  (John 1:49 | TNIV)

What made Nathanael make such a declaration?  Did God reveal it to him as He did to Peter, years later?  Did he believe it?  Let’s see why Nathanael was so surprised that he leaped to such an incredible conclusion.

Three surprising days: Day 1

The first 18 verses of John 1 constitute what Bible scholars call “The Prologue.”  The actual gospel begins with verse 19:

Now this was John’s testimony when the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was.  He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, “I am not the Messiah.”  (John 1:19 – 20 | TNIV)

The “John” here is John the Baptist, the cousin of Jesus, who had garnered some notoriety because he was baptizing all kinds of people in the Jordan.  The religious leaders wanted to know who this crazy-looking man was.  The baptist assured them that he was not the Messiah, to which they were probably relieved.  But then there was this exchange:

“Why then do you baptize if you are not the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?”  “I baptize with water,” John replied, “but among you stands one you do not know.  He is the one who comes after me, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.”  (John 1:25 – 27 | TNIV)

What in the world did John the Baptist mean by that?  This was the first day.

Day 2

On the second day, things get really interesting.

The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!  This is the one I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’  I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel.”  (John 1:29 – 31 | TNIV)

John the Baptist makes his incredible declaration.  This man, Jesus, was not only the Messiah, but He was also the Savior.  He would prove to be both.  He’s the Savior because He’s the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  Make note of that.  Jesus Christ came to take away the sin of “the world!”  The Son of God came from God to take away the sin of the world – the SIN, not sins.  Why didn’t He come to take away the SINS of the world?  Surely there are many sins to be taken away!  John the Baptist sees the big picture.  Sure, we all sin and Jesus came to deal with our personal sins, to be sure.  But in the big picture, Jesus came to deal with the SIN of the world.  What is the SIN of the world?  Since the fall of Adam, the great SIN of the world has been the constant rebellion of all people against the will of God. The Lamb of God came into this rebellious world to deal with the rebellion of all creation.  That’s a stunning confession.  That’s a stunning mission!

So, He’s the Great and Mighty Savior of the rebellious world.  With one confession, the sinner’s sins are forever removed from his person, never be brought up again.  But wait!  There’s more!  Jesus is the Messiah.  Jesus is the Savior.  And He is the one who continues to save.  That word “takes” is an all-important word.  It’s written in the present tense, meaning that Jesus is always taking away sins.  He is always taking away your sins!  Even though you’re saved, you continue to sin, therefore you are always in need of forgiveness.  He does that! He’s the perpetual Savior!  Not only that, anybody can come to Him anytime.  

Thousands of years before this, Isaac asked his father a question:

Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?” “Yes, my son?” Abraham replied. “The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”  (Genesis 22:7 | TNIV)

Abraham, in a moment of inspiration gives an answer that I’m sure he had no idea how profound it really was.

Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.”  (Genesis 22:8 | TNIV)

Well, He did provide the Lamb.  It took a long, long time, but when the time was right, Jesus came.   God’s sacrificial Lamb who would take away the sins of the world.  

John then baptized his cousin, and this was the second day.

Day 3

What do you do after you’ve baptized the Messiah and Savior and witness God speaking from Heaven?  I mean, after the events of the second day, John the Baptist had seen it all, heard it all, and done it all!  So, what do you do?  I guess you do what John the Baptist and his friends did: Just hang around and wait to see what happens next. 

The next day John was there again with two of his disciples.  When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!”  (John 1:35, 36 | TNIV)

The third day begins the rise of Jesus, the Lamb of God, and the fading of John the Baptist into the background.  The Baptist’s work was done.  He was, after all, given one job to do, and he did perfectly: To announce the coming of the Kingdom into our world.  In verse 36, he’s still doing that, but then an odd thing happens next, which was really just a harbinger of what was to come.

When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus.  (John 1:37 | TNIV)

And that’s how it should have been.  The two disciples, Andrew and probably John, turned to follow the Messiah; the Savior.  

Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, “What do you want?” They said, “Rabbi” (which means “Teacher”), “where are you staying?”  “Come,” he replied, “and you will see.” So they went and saw where he was staying, and they spent that day with him. It was about four in the afternoon.  (John 1:38, 39 | TNIV)

At first, Jesus’ question seems a little blunt, but it was an appropriate question.  Just what were these two guys looking for, anyway?  Did they want something for themselves?  Were they looking for some better experience than what they were having with John?  The answer they gave showed that they had some insight into who this Jesus was.  They were looking for Someone, not something.  And Jesus gave the invitation that He gives to this day:  Come. He is still asking people who are interested to, “Come.”  

Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed are those who take refuge in him.  (Psalm 34:8 | TBIV)

 The first thing Andrew did was go and find his brother, Peter.

And he brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas” (which, when translated, is Peter).

And that’s what happened on the third day.

Day Four

The next day, here’s how it started:

The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, “Follow me.”  (John 1:43 | TNIV)

What’s interesting about this verse is that Jesus went out and found Philip, Philip wasn’t looking for Jesus.  So far, the other disciples came to Jesus on their own or were introduced to Him by those already following the Lord.  Philip may have been a little shy, and he was kind of a milquetoast-type of person; not real sure about himself or even of the Lord.  Later on, he was more than a little distressed when Jesus had to feed a large crowd.  Jesus asked him what to do about the situation, and the answer Philip gave shows that he was a man in way over head.

Philip answered him, “It would take almost a year’s wages to buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!”  (John 6:7 | TNIV)

Yes, Philip was like most of us.  He always seemed to see the half-empty cup.  Later on some Gentiles came looking for Jesus and they came to Philip.  Now, Philip could have easily told them what to do, but instead he did this:

Philip went to tell Andrew; Andrew and Philip in turn told Jesus.  (John 12:22 | TNIV)

Even after following Jesus for three years, hearing all the teaching and seeing all the miracles, Philip asked Jesus this near the end:

Lord, show us the Father, and it is sufficient for us.  (John 14:8, 9 | TNIV)

He still didn’t get it!  Left up to his own devices, would Philip have ever sought out Jesus on his own?  Not if he was like most of us.  How many of us are shy?  Most of us aren’t a Paul or a Peter or even John.  Most of probably think we have very little to offer Jesus.  Maybe, we are the ones Jesus seeks out the most.  

One thing Philip was, though, was a thoughtful student of the Scriptures.  Jesus called Philip, Philip responded and, shy as he was, went to find Nathanael.  As Godet observed:

One lighted torch serves to light another.

 Studies reveal that no less than 85% of all converts are introduced to Christ by someone they trust, like a friend, family member, or a co-worker.  As impressive as large evangelistic services seem, it’s the spontaneous, one-on-one witnessing that is the most effective form of evangelism.

Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”  (John 1:45 | TNIV)

“We have found the one.”  Maybe this was the only time Philip ever got excited about anything, but you can sense the excitement.  But Nathanael wasn’t so excited.  In fact, he’s so skeptical he insults an entire town.

“Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked. “Come and see,” said Philip.  (John 1:46 | TNIV)

For some reason, Nazareth had a bad reputation, and as far as Nathanael was concerned, whomever it was they found, this Jesus fellow, was from the wrong side of the tracks.  But Philip won’t be discouraged, so he invites Nathanael to, “Come and see.”  Never underestimate the power of an honest invitation.  

One scholar makes note of Nathanael’s question, “Can anything good come from there?” to illustrate just how good Jesus really was.  This man’s sarcastic question has a modern parallel question:  Who is Jesus?  The context gives us a powerful answer: 

  • He is the adequate Sacrifice for man’s sin, verse 29;
  • He is the One who baptizes with the Holy Spirit, verse 33;
  • He is the great Teacher of men, verse 38;
  • He is the King – the only One worthy of man’s highest allegiance, verse 49.

That’s the good that came out of Nazareth in the form of Jesus Christ!

Well, Nathanael went and saw and heard Jesus talk as if the Lord knew him his whole life.

When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”  “How do you know me?” Nathanael asked. Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.”  (John 1:47, 48 | TNIV)

The kind “knowing” Nathanael asked Jesus about was a deep, intimate knowing; a discerning knowledge of the deepest part of a person’s heart.  Jesus knew this man that well.  No wonder Nathanael was surprised.  Not only that, somehow this Man from Nazareth had seen him sitting under a tree.  The context suggests that he had been reading about Jacob’s experience at Bethel in (Genesis 28:10 – 17).  Unlike Nathanael, Jacob was one who was most definitely filled with guile!  He had been forced to leave home because he had lied to his father and swindled his brother.  And yet, this scoundrel was privileged to have been given an amazing revelation from God. How much more, then, would Nathanael see, a man completely different from Jacob?  

To say Nathanael was surprised by all that Jesus had said would be an understatement, but the cry of his heart reveals what was in it.

Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.”  (John 1:49 | TNIV)

Then Jesus says something worth looking at quickly – 

Jesus said, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that.”  He then added, “Very truly I tell you, you will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on’ the Son of Man.”. (John 1:50 – 51 | TNIV)

Nathanael’s faith in Jesus was based on his monumental surprise; that Jesus actually saw him under that fig tree.  And yet, it’s a little more than just that.  Jesus saw the man for what he was.  He had the uncanny ability to discern another’s character.  And according to the Lord, Nathanael would “see” even greater things the longer he followed Him.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

7 Surprised People in the Bible

 

 

The Hapless Gehazi

2 Kings 5:20 – 27 

 

2 Kings 5 is one of the most curious, interesting chapters in Hebrew history.  Although it deals with a very serious disease and sin, the story is told in a humorous way.  Which goes to prove something I’ve always suspected to be true: God has a sense of humor.  As they say, if you don’t believe God has a sense of humor, just look in the mirror.  It also gives us a little more insight to Elisha, the prophet, who was the successor to the great Elijah.  Elijah had a long, distinguished, and powerful career as a national prophet and leader of “the school of prophets.”  His time came to an end in 2 Kings 3, and his assistant, Elisha, took over.

As they were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind.  Elisha saw this and cried out, “My father! My father! The chariots and horsemen of Israel!” And Elisha saw him no more. Then he took hold of his garment and tore it in two.  He picked up the cloak that had fallen from Elijah and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan.  Then he took the cloak that had fallen from him and struck the water with it. “Where now is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” he asked. When he struck the water, it divided to the right and to the left, and he crossed over.  The company of the prophets from Jericho, who were watching, said, “The spirit of Elijah is resting on Elisha.” And they went to meet him and bowed to the ground before him.   (2 Kings 2:11 – 15 | TNIV)

From this point on until his death well over half a century after, Elisha became the voice of the prophets in the land.  In some ways, his ministry was even more powerful than that of his mentor.  Still, Elijah was and remains a much revered figure in Jewish history.  In fact, he was thought so highly of that some people thought Jesus Christ was really the prophet Elijah come back in the flesh!  Even though they were wrong about that, God’s people do hold that the ministry of the great Elijah is far from over.  Writing some three centuries later, another prophet by the name of Malachi, mentions Elijah’s name:

“See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes.  He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.”  (Malachi 4:5, 6 | TNIV)

But for now, the rugged Elisha takes center stage.  In 2 Kings 5 we see the tremendous spiritual power this man had.  It’s almost frightening.

Namaan

Now Naaman was commander of the army of the king of Aram. He was a great man in the sight of his master and highly regarded, because through him the Lord had given victory to Aram. He was a valiant soldier, but he had leprosy.  (2 Kings 5:1 | TNIV)

Has any character in the Bible, who wasn’t a Jew, been given such great press?  Naaman, whose name means “pleasant,” was the leader of the great Syrian army.  He was a great military man, but also honorable, victorious, mighty, and a man covered in valor.  According to both the Bible and Jewish historian Josephus, because he was a man of such sterling character, God made him victorious over King Ahab, the thoroughly vile king of Israel.  And yet, in spite of all he had going for him, Naaman was man whose days were numbered.  Leprosy – or some dreadful skin disease – was eating him up from the inside out.  

It may surprise you to know that God has often used people who were not believers to accomplish His will on earth.  He used Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar, Cyrus, and even Alexander the Great.  God is sovereign.  He can do what He wants and He can use whomever He pleases to accomplish His purposes.  All the non-believers He used had particular skills and talents that were needed at that moment in history when God used them.  Such was the case with Naaman, the leper.

The fellow Namaan had many fine points; he had a lot to recommend him to be sure.  But he was a leper.  In the Bible, leprosy is not only a literal skin disease but it also a type of sin – something that is incurable by human standards.  Only God can cure sin and save the sinner.  Naaman was able to walk about society because he was able to cover up his leprosy, but his days were numbered.  People try to do that today with sin.  They walk around, covering it up and looking good, all they while their sin is eating them alive just as surely as Naaman’s skin disease was killing him a millimeter at time.

Now bands of raiders from Aram had gone out and had taken captive a young girl from Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife.  She said to her mistress, “If only my master would see the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.”. (2 Kings 5:2, 3 | TNIV)

You have to hand it to this servant girl.  We don’t know her name but she sure didn’t hide her light under a basket!  She wasn’t afraid to speak her faith.  And it’s a good thing too.  Namaan’s only hope was a miracle.  The fact that she was unashamed of her faith is remarkable enough, but there are two other remarkable things about this remarkable young lady.  First, even though she had been taken captive by Naaman, she actually wanted to help him live!  I think that testifies to his goodness as a person.  But she also knew all about Elisha, and that this prophet of God would help this pagan general.  And that testifies both to the prophet’s fame and his character.  God is certainly no respecter of persons and neither was His prophet, Elisha.

The healing

Through a convoluted series of events, the letter asking for a miracle finally reached the right person, Elisha. 

So Naaman went with his horses and chariots and stopped at the door of Elisha’s house.  Elisha sent a messenger to say to him, “Go, wash yourself seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will be restored and you will be cleansed.”. (2 Kings 5:9, 10 | TNIV)

Naaman could have gone by himself to see Elisha, but he didn’t.  With great pomp and elegance, a great caravan led by the Naaman went right up to the prophet’s front door.  So unimpressed with this unnecessary display, Elisha chose to send a servant, probably Gehazi, to meet Naaman and give him some simple instructions.  You should ask yourself why the prophet didn’t want to meet this man personally.  It had nothing to do with the leprosy, but rather everything to do with perception.  Elisha would heal Naaman so that God would get the glory, not any man.  Not only that, read Naaman’s reaction to Elisha’s prescription:

But Naaman went away angry and said, “I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy.  Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Couldn’t I wash in them and be cleansed?” So he turned and went off in a rage.  (2 Kings 5:11, 12 | TNIV)

Like a lot people who pray for God to meet some need, Naaman had his own idea of how it should be done.  Large swaths of the Christian church still think we have do things to guarantee salvation or the answer to some prayer.  But God does things in a simple way.  Nobody needs to try to impress God with pomp and ceremony.  Nobody has to suffer to receive their miracle.  Or pay for it.  Unfortunately, believers in need often approach God the way they think He wants them to and expect Him to answer their prayer the way think He should.  But it doesn’t work that way.  

Naaman’s servants went to him and said, “My father, if the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more, then, when he tells you, ‘Wash and be cleansed’!”  (2 Kings 5:13 | TNIV)

How lucky was this guy?  He was surrounded by people with common sense.  First the servant girl and now these servants.  But this verse tells us something very important.  His servants were smart; they knew their master (father) well.  He would have done a great thing to get his miracle, but God wanted him to do a very simple, humble thing.  That dipping ones’ self in the Jordan river seven times is simple.  But the Jordan River was a dirty river.  That was the humbling part.  Getting clean in muddy water didn’t make any sense and anybody watching Naaman would have thought he was a little off his rocker.  

But, in the end, Naaman relented and did what he was told.

So he went down and dipped himself in the Jordan seven times, as the man of God had told him, and his flesh was restored and became clean like that of a young boy.  (2 Kings 5:14 | TNIV)

A pagan is converted, a believer falls

Naaman, having been miraculously cured of his leprosy, was so overjoyed, he wanted to pay Elisha for the miracle.  Of course, because Elisha was a man of honor in addition to being a man of God, he refused the gift.  So Naaman asked the prophet for a gift.  

If you will not,” said Naaman, “please let me, your servant, be given as much earth as a pair of mules can carry, for your servant will never again make burnt offerings and sacrifices to any other god but the Lord. But may the Lord forgive your servant for this one thing: When my master enters the temple of Rimmon to bow down and he is leaning on my arm and I have to bow there also—when I bow down in the temple of Rimmon, may the Lord forgive your servant for this.”  (2 Kings 5:17, 18 | TNIV)

The implication is that the Syrians would build some sort of private shrine for Yahweh in Damascus.  Now, that seems like an odd request, and to we modern believers who know better, it seems almost like a superstitious request.  But it showed just how much this fellow had changed.  He had just disparaged Israelite rivers but now he wanted a piece of Yahweh’s homeland in Damascus!  Not only that, he knew he’d be going into a pagan temple when he got home as part of his job and he knew that was wrong.  He asked for forgiveness in advance.  

We don’t know what became of Naaman, but we do know that thanks to God’s intervention, he became a believer in Yahweh.

Had the story ended here, it would have been the most happiest of endings.  But there is an epilogue involving Elisha’s servant, Gehazi.  

Gehazi, the servant of Elisha the man of God, said to himself, “My master was too easy on Naaman, this Aramean, by not accepting from him what he brought. As surely as the Lord lives, I will run after him and get something from him.”  (2 Kings 5:20 | TNIV)

Gehazi watched the magnificent caravan disappear over the horizon, and along with it, all that treasure.  It must have driven him crazy, so he hatched a plan.

So Gehazi hurried after Naaman. When Naaman saw him running toward him, he got down from the chariot to meet him. “Is everything all right?” he asked.  “Everything is all right,” Gehazi answered. “My master sent me to say, ‘Two young men from the company of the prophets have just come to me from the hill country of Ephraim. Please give them a talent of silver and two sets of clothing.’”  (2 Kings 5:21, 22 | TNIV)

Again, you can see Naaman’s character in that question.  But Gehazi’s lie was of monumental proportions:  Two broke seminary students needed some help.  Of course, Naaman was more than happy to donate double the amount Gehazi asked for.

There are plenty of Gehazi’s out there today, running essentially the same scam.  Just check out all the charities operating and compare how much money given actually gets out on the field versus how much goes toward so-called “operating expenses.”  

Oh, the irony

But, nobody “gets away it,” even though it may seem like they do.  All sinners will be exposed for what they are, either in this world or the next.  It will happen.  You can make book on that.  Gehazi got his comeuppance in this life, and in very short order.  

When Gehazi came to the hill, he took the things from the servants and put them away in the house. He sent the men away and they left.  When he went in and stood before his master, Elisha asked him, “Where have you been, Gehazi?” “Your servant didn’t go anywhere,” Gehazi answered.  (2 Kings 5:24, 25 | TNIV)

So this guy was not only a schemer but a liar, too.  Like the boy with his hand caught in the cookie jar who exclaimed, “What?!?,” so Gehazi comes across as a sort of bumbling idiot.  The jig was up and he should have just come clean and taken his chances.  But he didn’t.  In an amazing display of a supernatural gift from God, Elisha called Gehazi out.

But Elisha said to him, “Was not my spirit with you when the man got down from his chariot to meet you? Is this the time to take money or to accept clothes—or olive groves and vineyards, or flocks and herds, or male and female slaves?  Naaman’s leprosy will cling to you and to your descendants forever.” Then Gehazi went from Elisha’s presence and his skin was leprous—it had become as white as snow.  (2 Kings 5:26, 27 | TNIV)

It may well be that Elisha was given a special gift of discernment whereby he could “read Gehazi’s mind” and discern the man’s heart.  The Douay Rheims Bible gives sheds a little light on what was in the servant’s mind:

But he said: Was not my heart present, when the man turned back from his chariot to meet thee? So now thou hast received money, and received garments, to buy olive yards, and vineyards, and sheep, and oxen, and menservants, and maidservants.  (2 Kings 5:26 | DRB)

Gehazi wanted the live the good life and he used a deceitful way to get it.  Deception never works out well in the end for the deceiver, and in this fellow’s case, the came fast.

Naaman’s leprosy will cling to you and to your descendants forever.” Then Gehazi went from Elisha’s presence and his skin was leprous—it had become as white as snow.  (2 Kings 5:27 | TNIV)

What a sad end to a sad man.  But Gehazi wasn’t the last person who lived in the presence of God of godly men who would fall.  How about Judas?  He was just as enamored with worldliness and materialism.  One scholar points out a piece of stinging irony:

We see here a pagan who by an act of faith is cured of leprosy and an Israelite who by an act of dishonor is cursed with it.

There are few stories in the Bible that provide so many practical lessons for the believer as this one.  First, there is no way a sinner can impress God enough to save him.  For all his wealth and importance, Namaan had to humble himself before he could receive his miracle from God.

Second, Elisha was a straight shooter.  He knew his place in the Kingdom of God.  He was not priest of impressive credentials.  He knew he was simply God’s man for a time on earth.  God was the healer, not he.  All Elisha did was give simple instructions to Namaan.  In essence all he did was give Namaan the message from God.

You and I have essentially the same job as Elisha in that sense.  We are to give God’s message of hope and salvation to the lost.  That’s it.  We aren’t to engage in all kinds of histrionics in order to convince the skeptic.  God’s word is simple and ours on His behalf should be, also.  

Finally, as in the case of the hapless Gehazi, your sins will find you out.  It’s would serve you well to do your level best to live right because you can’t fool God.

 

 

 

 

 


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