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The Ideal Church, Part 3

All Saints Church, South Wingfield

 In our study of the Church, we noted the difference between the “perfect” church and the “ideal” church.  The difference is so easy, it seems like a waste of time to mention it.  But in our secular world, even Christians have become so spiritually dull that it’s necessary to point out that there is NO such thing as a “perfect” church.  It doesn’t exist anywhere on earth.  It never has.  That’s because the Church on earth is full of imperfect people.  Their hearts may be right and their motives pure, but members of any church are all imperfect, therefore, the church they belong to is imperfect.  Search high and low and you will never find the “perfect” church.  You will, however, find the “ideal” church.  You may even belong to it.  You may not.  It’s not the members, nor is it the staff, that makes a church “ideal.” It all boils down the church’s beliefs.  

So far, we’ve discovered that the ideal church has two components:

The ideal church is the Jesus-built church.  

And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of death will not overcome it.  (Matthew 16:18 | TNIV)

The Jesus-built church is one built upon the fact that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, the Son of the living God, and its beliefs come from the teaching of the God’s Word, both the living Word (Jesus Christ) and the written Word (the Bible).  Churches that are built around the teachings of man are not Jesus-built churches.  They will falter and fail eventually.  Only the church that is built upon the rock that is Jesus Christ will endure no matter what.

Also, the ideal church realizes that it doesn’t belong to its members or its pastor or even its denomination.  The ideal church knows for certain that it has been bought by the precious blood of Jesus and is therefore owned completely by God.

Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.  (Acts 20:28 | TNIV)

Your pastor and your elders all have divinely ordained responsibilities that you may not have, but that doesn’t make the church theirs.  It is God’s special possession.  It was bought with the shed blood of His only Son.  It is of equal value to God as His Son.  The Church is special.  God thinks it is, even if you don’t.  Maybe we who belong to it should check our attitude about the church we attend.  Bad-mouthing something God’s own Son died for is probably not a good idea.

The third aspect of the ideal church is that even though it may be organized with a board of elders, led by a pastor or pastors, has deacons that look after it, and a treasurer to make sure the bills get paid, in reality it’s the Holy Spirit who is the administrator of the ideal church.

And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues.  (1 Corinthians 12:28 | TNIV)

Chapter 12 of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians was written in answer to a question the church had asked him.

Now about the gifts of the Spirit, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed.  (1 Corinthians 12:1 | TNIV)

You just know the folks in the Corinthian church were, in fact, uninformed about the gifts of the Spirit.  It’s not that they were unfamiliar with the idea. In antiquity, it was recognized that some people were more spiritual than others and they were believed to have been endowed with certain powers and abilities regular people weren’t.  Often these “spiritually gifted” pagans would manifest their gifts in odd ways: Speaking in a weird language or in a frenzied manner; falling into a trance; behaving in an overly enthusiastic manner at times.  These were pagans, and as the church grew and converted pagans joined its ranks, they learned about what happened in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost when the Spirit fell and gifted members of the new church with the ability to, for example, speak in foreign languages and even heal the sick and the lame.  To these new converts, folks who were practicing the “flashy” gifts of the Holy Spirit were the real deal! They were the super-spiritual ones.  But others who didn’t practice the “flashy” gifts were viewed as less than spiritual.  Never mind that there were all kinds of gifts of the Spirit that may have seemed bland in comparison.  Loving people may not see like an exciting gift.  Giving abundantly to the work of the church may go unnoticed but it’s still a gift.  Paul’s teaching here is that all – ALL – gifts of the Spirit are important.  And a church needs all the gifts working in it.  

There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them.  There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord.  There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.  (1 Corinthians 12:4 – 6 | TNIV)

This is such a simple truth, but the good people in the Corinthian church needed to know this.  The Holy Spirit distributes His gifts to people as He sees fit. These gifts often work in concert with the temperament and personality of the one receiving them.  Some of the gifts may seem exciting and flashy – like the working of miracles or speaking in tongues, for example – and others more subdued – like being hospitable to strangers and opening up your home to them, for example – but all the gifts of the Spirit come from the same Holy Spirit.  And they are all important.

Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.  All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines.  (1 Corinthians 12:7, 11 | TNIV)

Verse 7 is why the ideal church has members exercising the gifts of the Spirit:  They are given for the common good.  In other words, these gifts of the Spirit aren’t naturally in a person – even in a Christian – but they are given for the good of the members of the church.  This is why it’s so important to take church attendance seriously!  You are in possession of a gift or gifts from the Holy Spirit that your church needs!  When you don’t go to church you’re robbing somebody in your church of a touch from God through you.  

Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ.  For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.  Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.  (1 Corinthians 12:12 – 14 | TNIV)

It’s a brilliant analogy – your church is like a body.  A physical body has all kinds of parts that work together.  Some parts may seem to be more important than others, but a physical body needs all of its parts to be healthy.  So it is with the church.  It’s made up of all kinds of people – different kinds of people – who naturally possess talents and abilities that the Lord uses within the church.  And when you add into the mix the various gifts of the Holy Spirit, the ideal church becomes a diverse church, made up of a variety of people all blessed by the same Spirit and all working together to build up God’s church.  

Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.  (1 Corinthians 12:27 | TNIV)

This is an interesting verse; more interesting than it appears at first glance.  The “you” refers specifically to the members of the Corinthian church.  There was some arguing and contention among the members of this large, cosmopolitan congregation, and Paul wanted them to understand that rich or poor, freeman or slave, Jew or Gentile, male or female, all “you” Corinthians are  “part of the body of Christ.”  Here’s the interesting bit.  It’s not at all clear in the English, but in the Greek what Paul wrote is truly profound.  These bickering Corinthians formed the greater body of Christ, not just the part called the “church at Corinth.”  The sense here is that all believers, from first century Corinth to twenty-first Calgary, all believers form part of the eternal body of Christ.  All believers from every nation, from every walk of life, from all time form part of the living Body of Christ.  Every believer, from the best selling author who pastors a huge mega church on the west coast of the United States to the Vicar of a small, rural parish on the Isle of Skye in Scotland to the impoverished member of an underground church in the Sudan, is an important, indispensable, and vital member of Christ’s Body.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that all members of the Body of Christ have the same gifts or responsibilities.  We don’t.  And that’s the point of our key verse:

And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues.  (1 Corinthians 12:28 | TNIV)

The ideal church recognizes that while all members of the church are important and necessary, not all members have the same responsibilities within the church.  God – not the board or the congregation or the denomination – has put certain people in the church to hold certain positions or offices for the good of the church.  These are not only people (apostles, prophets, teachers) but also gifts of the Holy Spirit (healing, helping, guidance, tongues).  It’s true that some of these offices have disappears because they are no longer necessary – there are no longer any apostles or prophets in the sense of being able to foretell the future – but you must understand that God is the One who knows what’s best for the church and who’s best for the church.  The Lord is the one who leads the right people into the church and gifts its members with the most necessary gifts for that church.  

Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues ? Do all interpret?  (1 Corinthians 12:29, 30 | TNIV)

Those are all rhetorical questions designed to show the Corinthians and us that we’re all different but all necessary in the church.  God is a God of variety and He made us all different, unique, yet indispensable to the church.  

The ideal church recognizes not only the uniqueness of every one of its members, respects their natural talents and their spiritual gifts, but also encourages them to live out their faith within the church by allowing them to exercise their gifts.  Not only that, the ideal church understands that some in their number have been called and gifted to perform certain responsibilities in the church and assume certain offices within the church, and instead of responding in jealousy or envy, all members of the church should pray for and encourage those who hold those positions – like pastor or elder or teacher.  









The Ideal Church, Part 2

Westminster Abbey

 This series is called, “The Ideal Church.”  It’s not called, “The Perfect Church,” because there’s no such thing as the “perfect church.”  If somehow, somebody, somewhere could actually start “the perfect church,” the minute you join it, it would cease to be perfect.  The Church of Jesus Christ cannot be perfect because it’s made up of people like you and me: Dreadfully imperfect people, full of faults and foibles.  But there is “the ideal church,” and maybe you’re a member of an “ideal church.”  There are lots of them, all over the world.  You may not hear much about them.  Most of them aren’t pastored by famous, best selling authors.  But some may be.  You probably won’t find Grammy Award winning worship leaders in the “ideal church.”  Or maybe you might.  The “ideal church” isn’t necessarily hard to find.  But you have to look for it.  

The ideal church is not necessarily the “American church,” with it’s steeples and bells and, often with the word “campus” attached to it, with it’s typically American hymns and songs, often projected up on screens, with it’s hip worship leader wearing skinny jeans and a worship band made up a collection of 20-something year old musicians.  If you were to journey to other countries, even in the Western world, to attend a church service, you might be surprised how they “do church.”  Does a church, for example, that only sings the psalms with no musical instruments sound like an ideal church to you?  Or how about a church without a pastor; a church run by a number of elders who take turns preaching and teaching.  Does that sound ideal?  

It might surprise you to know that in terms of how long man has been roaming the earth, the church is fairly recent invention.  It’s true.  Going back to the earliest days of man on the earth, there was no church.  There was no “organized religion.”  There was only the family, and the worship of God all took place within that context.  The family, God’s idea in the first place, became the model for another one of His ideas: The church.  That’s why we often talk about “the church family.”  The church was founded by Jesus on the Day of Pentecost and local churches sprang up after that, and at first there was little or no organization, just a strong bond of love, fellowship, and co-operation.  The church in its simplest form is made of people who love each other, enjoy fellowshipping with each other, study God’s Word together, and work to promote the love of Christ in the larger community.  Is that the ideal church?

Last time out, we talked about the foundation of “the ideal church.”  It’s the Jesus-built church.  The ideal church isn’t built upon the yeast of Pharisees and the Sadducees.  It’s not built upon men like Peter and his teachings.  The ideal church is founded upon the Rock of Jesus Christ, the Christ, the Son of the living God.  It is built by Jesus Christ.  It is not built by clever marketing techniques and slick programs.  Lots of churches come and go, but the ideal church will stand the test of time; it will stand up under the withering blasts of Hell itself.  The Jesus-built church will endure until the very end.

Another thing to note about the ideal church is that it was bought by the very blood of Jesus Christ.

Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.  (Acts 20:28 | TNIV)

That’s Paul speaking to a bunch of elders from the church at Ephesus.  There’s a lot of theology crammed in those two English sentences.  For example, there’s a gem of Pastoral Theology tucked in there.  Maybe you missed it.  Paul said that your “overseer” or your pastor is in his position because the Holy Spirit called him to be there.  Yes, the pastorate isn’t just a career a person chooses because he doesn’t like to get his hands dirty or because he likes to sing or impress people with his use of big words – Greek, Hebrew and English big words.  A true “man of the cloth” is so because God has called him to be one.  They are, furthermore, “shepherds of the church of God.”  That’s because churches are full of sheep that need to be led, tended to and cared for.  Of primary significance, though, is the last statement regarding the church of God: Christ bought it with his own blood.  

Blood in the Bible

To the uninitiated, the Christian church’s view of “the blood of Jesus” may seem kind of odd.  Most of us don’t like looking at blood.  Personally, I hate looking at anything outside of the body that belongs inside the body, and certainly singing songs about “blood” might be a bit off-putting, Jesus’ or otherwise.  And the idea of drinking the blood of Jesus during a Communion service could be seen as bizarre.  As a matter of fact, during the earliest days of Christianity, the celebration of the Lord’s Supper proved problematic because it led some Romans to think Christians were no better than cannibals!   So, where does the Christian obsession with “blood” come from?  It all goes back to what God thinks about it.

For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life.  Therefore I say to the Israelites, ‘None of you may eat blood, nor may any foreigner residing among you eat blood.’  (Leviticus 17:11, 12 | NIVUK)

As far as God was concerned, blood was all-important because without blood, there could be no life, and as part of His law for His people, they had to treat blood with all the reverence it deserved.  Even as far back as their days in Egypt, before the law was given at Mount Sinai, on the eve of their deliverance, the Israelites were told to put the blood of a sacrificed lamb on their door posts so that the “death angel” might see it and passover their homes.  Again, why blood?  It was to signify to that supernatural visitor that a death had already taken place in that home and that he could move along.  

Once a year, during the Day of Atonement celebrations, the High Priest would enter into the Holy of Holies with the blood of the sacrificial goat and sprinkle it all over the altar.  The blood of that goat was given on behalf of the people; poured out in order to secure forgivness for their sins.  The goat suffered and died and shed its blood to satisfy the law of God and in place of the people’s suffering and death. 

The blood of Jesus

In God’s way of thinking, because blood is essential to life, the highest offering that can be made to Him must involve blood.  Going back to the earliest days of the Israelites, God gave the a process whereby the sins of the people could be covered up – made atonement for – by using the blood of animals.  God’s justice demands that sin and sinners be punished.  When you commit a sin, regardless of what it may be, you are committing a sin against an eternal God, therefore your sin is eternal in nature.  Therefore the punishment for that eternal sin must also be eternal in nature: Eternal death.  In the Old Testament, that payment took the form of a perfect animal sacrifice, offered in the way outlined in God’s law.  The animal was slain, it’s blood shed for the sins of the people.  

But over in the New Testament, that all changed with the coming of Jesus Christ.

In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.  (Hebrews 9:22 | NIVUK)

But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.  (1 John 1:7 | NIVUK)

So instead of having to slaughter all kinds of animals to satisfy God’s holy and righteous justice, Jesus came to give His life one time, for all the sins of the world.  He shed His blood – He poured out His life – so that your sins could be atoned for.  

The shedding of Jesus’ blood on the cross not only took care of our sin problem, but it also showed the whole universe what human beings are worth to God.  Christ’s blood bought our forgiveness; we are worth the price of Christ’s blood to God.  

…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.  God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood – to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished – he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.  (Romans 3:23 – 26 | NIVUK)

So the shed blood of Jesus took care of all the sins of the past, because the blood of all those animals didn’t really provide forgiveness, it just stayed God’s punishment until Jesus came to shed His blood, taking care of all those sins before, and all the sins yet to come.  

The blood of Jesus takes care of your sins when you believe in His work on the cross.  Notice Paul wrote that the benefits of Christ’s shed blood must be “received by faith.”  That means you have to believe in the power of Jesus’ blood.  It’s easy to take His great sacrifice for granted, and that’s why we celebrate Communion, or the Lord’s Supper.  He instituted this “memorial” to help us understand and remember what He did for us.

In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.  (Luke 22:20 | NIVUK)  

Jesus’ blood established the “new covenant,” replacing the “old covenant,” which is why we sing hymns about the blood of Jesus and not the blood of goats and lambs.

Acts 20:28

Let’s go back to the verse that started all this.  

Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.  (Acts 20:28 | TNIV)

Some things become very apparent in this verse.  First, the primary job of the “overseer,” who would be the pastor or pastors, is to “keep watch over” themselves and then to do the same for the congregation.  We don’t think much about this order, but it is significant.  If the shepherd of a church is to lead his congregation, then his life needs to be right.  Church leaders need to DO before they can encourage the people to DO.  

Second, the Holy Spirit appointed your pastor and elders.  It may not appear that way to you, but it’s a fact.  The pastor of the church, and indeed the elders of that church, are tasked by the Holy Spirit, with loving the congregation and being concerned for their spiritual wellbeing.  

Third, part of that concern involves shepherding God’s church.  Note that carefully.  Not the shepherding part, but the “God’s church” part.  It’s God’s church.  It’s not your pastor’s church.  It’s not your church.  It’s not your denomination’s church.  The church you attend is God’s own church. And why is it God’s church?  The church belongs to God because He bought it for Himself.  The idea here is so simple, yet so profound at the same time.  The thought is that God redeemed for Himself a people known as “the Church.”  How much did God pay for the church?  The cost of our redemption was literally “the blood of His Own.”  The church is God’s special property, and the ideal church realizes this truth.  You’d think all churches would know this, but you’d be surprised many do not.  Many people think the church is owned by its most influential family. Or the board of elders.  Or the presbytery.  But it isn’t.  God bought and paid for the church  – your church – with the blood of His only Son.  He loves the church and He cares very much about the church and He cares about what you think of His church. Do you love it like He does?  Or do you find excuses to avoid it every chance you get?  Do you love its members like they were your own family, which they are, actually?  Or do you talk bad about them and gossip about them whenever you can?  

The ideal church is first and foremost a Jesus-built church.  And in the second place, the ideal church realizes it has been bought by God and owned lock, stock, and barrel by Him.  












The Ideal Church, Part 1

All Saints Church, in Ipswich.


Everybody has their own idea of what “the church” should look like.  If you watch TV, you’d get the impression “the church” is a place where you play bingo; a place that serves hot meals to homeless people; a place where kids play basketball with the parish priest; or a place where illegal aliens hide out from the cops.  That’s pretty much our pop culture image of “the church.”  But what does the ideal church look like?  What happens in the ideal church?  Do you belong to the ideal church?  Maybe you do.  Maybe you don’t.  Over the next few weeks, I’d like to look at what the ideal church looks like according to the Bible.  

It used to be not that long ago that church attendance was considered to be a very important part of life for good people.  And people viewed the Church as an important institution in the community.  Churches and clergyman were respected and their views taken seriously.  That’s pretty much a picture of America that doesn’t exist anymore.  You’ve likely heard people say things like, “I don’t need to go to church.  I can be just as good a Christian at home.”  Maybe you’ve even said things like that.  It’s true that you can easily pray at home, read the Bible at home, and worship God at home.  I hope you really are doing those things at home.  However, there are aspects of our Christian life that must take place in the greater Christian community.  Face it.  You need the church and the church needs you!

Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ.  (1 Corinthians 12:12 | TNIV)

Christians form a body – the Body of Christ.  You may not like the idea, but if you’re a Christian then you are spiritually connected to other Christians and you’re all connected to Jesus.  

Speaking of Jesus, He made an early statement about the church, and this will be our starting point as we consider “the ideal church.”

And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of death will not overcome it.  (Matthew 16:18 | TNIV)

Demanding proof  

In the first dozen verses of Matthew 16, those religious pests – the Pharisees and Sadducees – demanded a sign from Jesus that proved the power of Jesus over demons was of God or not.  

Once the Pharisees and the Sadducees arrived together to test him, and asked him to give them a sign from Heaven. But he replied, “When the evening comes you say, ‘Ah, fine weather—the sky is red.’ In the morning you say, ‘There will be a storm today, the sky is red and threatening.’ Yes, you know how to interpret the look of the sky but you have no idea how to interpret the signs of the times! A wicked and unfaithful age insists on a sign; and it will not be given any sign at all but that of the prophet Jonah.” And he turned on his heel and left them.  (Matthew 16:1 – 4 | JBP)

These guys were always pestering Jesus for a “sign from heaven,” but Jesus wouldn’t play that game.  Such a sign could easily be misinterpreted or misunderstood by people who were part of “a wicked and unfaithful age.”  Even the casual Bible-reader can pick up on the vibe that while the ordinary folk seemed to support Jesus – He did have His “fans” for part of His ministry – the influential religious parties, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, opposed our Lord strenuously for different reasons.  The Pharisees’ opposition to Jesus was largely theological while the Saducees, who pretty much objected to everybody but members of their own sect, didn’t care much for Jesus’ politics.  But both parties, in an early example of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” doctrine, wanted to trap Jesus; to trip Him up by using His words against Him.  At worst this could provide a way to silence Him one way or another, and at least they could make Jesus look the fool in front of His followers.  

But Jesus was too clever to take their bait.  Besides, He had been working “signs and wonders” everywhere.  It wasn’t His fault if those religious clowns couldn’t see the signs of healing and deliverance.  They didn’t accept those as evidence that this itinerant preacher was the Messiah.  They were looking for something truly spectacular.  In truth, nothing would have satisfied them.  Their puny minds had already been made up as far as Jesus was concerned.

The yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees

Jesus and His friends once again took their leave of the western shore – where He had experienced His greatest success and popularity and encountered His greatest opposition – and paddled across to the other side of the lake.

When the disciples crossed over to the other side of the lake, they forgot to take any bread. Jesus said to them, “Take care; be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”  (Matthew 16:5, 6 | GNT)

During the crossing of the lake, you can clearly see the cross purposes of Jesus and His disciples.  They were concerned that they hadn’t brought any lunch with them.  This was actually no minor concern.  It would have been hard to find edible food once they landed on shore because it was a sparsely populated area and it was Gentile territory.  Finding acceptable “Kosher” food there would have been difficult.  But Jesus had other things on His mind.  He was concerned about His friends becoming like the Pharisees or the Saducees.  In other words, He didn’t want them to become obsessed with the things those religious hypocrites had become obsessed with.  Interestingly, both parties, but especially the Pharisees, began with the purest of motives: Keeping the faith pure and the faithful practicing of God’s law.  Nobody could find fault with those objectives.  The problem was, over time the once noble goals of the religious leaders got lost amid power struggles, personalities, and false teaching.  Jesus didn’t want His friends to become corrupt and worldly in their thinking and methods like the Pharisees and Sadducees.  So, He was talking about their destructive influence, but the dull-witted disciples, because they were thinking about lunch, assumed Jesus was also thinking about lunch.  

Thinking he was scolding them for forgetting bread, they discussed in whispers what to do. Jesus knew what they were doing and said, “Why all these worried whispers about forgetting the bread? Runt believers! Haven’t you caught on yet? Don’t you remember the five loaves of bread and the five thousand people, and how many baskets of fragments you picked up? Or the seven loaves that fed four thousand, and how many baskets of leftovers you collected? Haven’t you realized yet that bread isn’t the problem? The problem is yeast, Pharisee-Sadducee yeast.” Then they got it: that he wasn’t concerned about eating, but teaching—the Pharisee-Sadducee kind of teaching.  (Matthew 16:7 – 12 | MSG)

How soon these men had forgotten the miracle of the feeding of the thousands of people.  And here they were.  Worried about food!  Did they think Jesus would let them starve?  Had they become that caught up in themselves and in their own ability (or lack of ability) to get food?  It would be easy to stand in judgment of the disciples, but it would be hypocritical because the modern Christian is probably even more thick-headed than they were.  When we have a need, do we not lose sleep contriving clever ways to meet that need without giving God a thought?  Or worse, if we do think of God, we utter the expected prayer, then go about fretting and wringing our hands as we try to figure out a way to find a solution to the problem we just prayed about?

That’s what was bothering our Lord.  It wasn’t the food.  It was the fact that these men were already becoming like the Pharisees and Sadducees and the didn’t know it.  Like the religious leaders, the disciples were more concerned with the externals – the things they could see and experience – than with the most important matter of the heart: faith in God.

Peter gets it

Jesus and His traveling companions arrived at Caesarea Philippi.  He’s really heading to Jerusalem to meet His fate: The Cross.  But before things start happening that will bring about the end of this earthly ministry of Jesus, He wanted to make a couple of things very clear in the minds of the disciples:  First, He needed them to know exactly who He is.  Second, they needed to know exactly what He was about to do.  By the way, those are still things we need to be convinced of and sure about even today.

When Jesus came to Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who are the people saying I am?”  “Well,” they replied, “some say John the Baptist; some, Elijah; some, Jeremiah or one of the other prophets.”  (Matthew 16:13, 14 | TLB)

He’s still just as controversial today as He was back then.  The Pharisees and Sadducess had their own ideas about this Jesus.  Some of the people who where following Him around also had their own ideas.  The disciples with Jesus this day had heard all rumors and they shared with Jesus the thoughts of the people.  John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah…all great men who had done great things for the Lord.  The crowd of fans didn’t get Jesus.  Most people today don’t get Him either.  Even after two millennia, Jesus remains a mystery to many people.

Then he asked them, “Who do you think I am?”  Simon Peter answered, “The Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”  Matthew 16:15, 16 | TLB)

The time had come for Jesus to push the disciples for a decision and make a confession.  It was Peter, the spokesman for the group who uttered the greatest, most profound statement in human history.  This Jesus was and is “the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”  

“God has blessed you, Simon, son of Jonah,” Jesus said, “for my Father in heaven has personally revealed this to you—this is not from any human source.  You are Peter, a stone; and upon this rock I will build my church; and all the powers of hell shall not prevail against it.  (Matthew 16:17, 18 | TLB)

Peter didn’t figure this out on his own.  And the truth is, no human being can come to the conclusion Peter came to without the help of the Holy Spirit.  Only the Spirit of God can make the things of God known to man.  You might think that these people who had been walking around with Jesus for three years, seeing all the miracles and hearing all the teachings would have figured it all out, but no.  It took an act of God to reveal the truth about Jesus to Peter and it takes that today, too.  You can know Jesus as Peter confessed only because the Holy Spirit makes Him real to you.

Then Jesus said something odd.  He called Peter a “stone.”  But the church would be built upon “this rock.”  There are all kinds ideas about what Jesus meant, but the most logical way to read this is that Peter was “a stone” but Jesus Himself the much larger “rock” and the church would be built upon the foundation of “the rock,” Jesus.   Paul taught this:

By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care.  For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.  (1 Corinthians 3:10, 11 | TNIV)

Peter made an important confession; one never made before: This Jesus Christ is the Messiah, God’s anointed one, the Son of the living God.  And Peter, said Jesus, was a stone, just a part of the church He was going to build.  But the church Jesus was building wouldn’t be built upon Peter or Peter’s ideas or the Pharisees ideas, rather, it would be built upon Jesus and the fact that He is the Messiah, the Son of the living God.  And the church built upon Jesus will never fail.  It will never die out.  Even the powers of hell cannot stop the Jesus-built church from moving forward.  

But there are other churches out there built upon other things and other people.  And that’s always the temptation.  The yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees is hard to resist.  A lot of people, even Christians, want to build a church on signs and wonders.  Really, what Jesus said is so simple.  The true church is the one He is building.  Stone by stone. Person by person. Only His church will stand the test of time.  













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.




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.











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