Tag: Covenant

Story 41: The Battling Sons of Rebekah

Genesis 25

Abraham lost his beloved wife Sarah.  She had given him Isaac, the son of God’s promise, and through Isaac, God would keep His covenant with Abraham to raise up a priestly nation to the world.  Abraham married again to a woman named Keturah.  She gave Abraham six sons.  Yet God made it clear that the honor of being the father of God’s priestly nation belonged to Isaac.  Abraham left everything he owned to him, including the land.  Abraham loved his sons through Keturah, so while he was still alive, he gave them many lavish gifts.  Then he sent them away to a land far off in the east.  Those sons had their own children, and their children had even more children, so that after many years, whole tribes of nations came from her children through Abraham.  God surely kept his promise to make Abraham the father of many nations!

Abraham lived to be a hundred and seventy-five years old.  The Bible says:

 

“Then Abraham breathed his last and died at a good old age,

an old man and full of years; and he was gathered to his people.”

 

By that time, Abraham had lived in the promise land for a hundred years.  He had become a great leader of a powerful tribe.  At the news of his death, the whole region would have mourned the loss of this mighty, righteous prince.  His strength and honorable character had brought security and peace to the whole region, and his goodness was known by all.

Abraham’s honored sons, Isaac and Ishmael, took his body to the cave where Sarah had been buried.  So many years before, Abraham had bought it at great cost from the Hittites to bury his beloved wife.  Now his sons lay him down beside her, united at the death of their noble father.  And after Abraham’s death, God blessed Isaac.

Now, we know that Abraham’s first son, Ishmael, had come from Sarah’s maidservant Hagar.  She was an Egyptian.  Her son was not the one that God meant to grow into a priestly nation.  Still, God is compassionate, and he promised Hagar that Ishmael would also be the father of a great nation.  Curiously, he also promised that Ishmael’s descendents would be warlike and hostile.

What God said came true as it always does.  Ishmael had many sons.  They had many children also, and from their children came twelve tribal nations.  Ishmael lived to be a hundred and thirty-seven years, and then he, too died.  The descendents of Ishmael moved to an area near the border of Egypt to settle down, far from the land of promise.  And just as God said, they were a hostile group who in all of history could not get along with any of their neighbors.  If this was the way of Abraham’s first born son, what would happen to the son of the Promise?  Would he grow up to be warlike, too?  Would he have the violent, deceptive nature of the enemies of God, or would he stand in the beauty of Eve’s repentant transformation?  Would Isaac learn to live in dependence on God like his father?

Rebekah and Isaac married when Isaac was forty years old.  Time went on as Isaac oversaw the vast wealth he had inherited from his father.  After twenty years of marraige, Rebekah still had no children.  But they were wise to the lessons that God had taught Abraham and Sarah.  They did not turn to Rebekah’s maidservants or anyone else to solve this terrible sadness.  Isaac went directly to the LORD and pleaded with him for his wife.  His first response was to turn to God.  In his perfect timing, the LORD answered Isaac’s prayer, and Rebekah became pregnant.  Can you imagine how happy they must have been after that long wait?

Just as with Abraham and Sarah, it must have been difficult and painful to wait so long, but in many ways, that made it far more special.  This pregnancy was something they had thought about and looked forward to, hoping and praying over long years.  All babies are a priceless gift from God, but because of their waiting, Isaac and Rebekah knew that this pregnancy was a very special answer to prayer.  God was going to honor his covenant promise to Abraham!

This was no ordinary pregnancy in more ways than one.  There were twins!  There were two babies inside Rebekah, and she really felt it.  They were always fighting each other!  Poor Rebekah, it must have been very uncomfortable to have a mini war going on right inside her belly!  “‘Why is this happening to me?’” she wondered.  She worried if all their moving and shaking was dangerous.  What if she lost them both?  What if all that fighting caused a miscarriage?  So just as Isaac had prayed to the LORD for his wife, Rebekah went to the LORD and cried out to understand what was going on.  Both Isaac and Rebekah had learned to take their lives to the LORD.  They were totally dependent on him.  And he was faithful to answer.

The LORD said to her:

 

“‘Two nations are in your womb,

and two peoples from within you

will be separated;

One people will be stronger than the other,

and the older will serve the younger’”

Genesis 25:23

 

Well, that sounds strange.  What does it mean that two whole nations were really living in Rebekah’s womb?  Is that possible?  No, of course not.  But there were two baby boys in there, growing and fighting against each other.  One day, they would be born into the world.  They would grow to be strong men, and they would have families of their own.  God, who knows everything, knew the future of Rebekah’s sons.  He had designed the future!   The descendents of each of Rebekah’s sons would grow to become great nations.

Now, God knows everything.  He understands everything that had ever happened perfectly, and he knows everything that is ever going to happen. He could have explained many things to Rebekah about her sons, but he didn’t.  He simply told her that they would both grow to be powerful, but that the older son would end up serving the younger son.  That wasn’t a lot of information, but it was a very, very big deal.  And because God made a point of telling Rebekah directly, it was something she was supposed to honor.

In the ancient days of Isaac and Rebekah, the firstborn son was given many responsibilities.  It was the oldest son that took the place of the father in the family when he died, and it was the oldest that inherited the most.  He would also take on the role of watching over the rest of the family.  It was his job to protect the family honor and help each member in their time of need.  The oldest son’s mother, his brothers and sisters and their spouses, and his nieces and nephews could all call on him and expect his care and concern throughout their lives.  It was a great burden and a great privilege.

The younger sons were supposed to honor their older brother and respect his commands.  This held together the systems of order and loyalty in the early family clans of human civilization, and it was often true in the family of God as well.  But God told Rebekah that it would not be the same for her sons.  The older son would serve the younger.  That was a radical idea, but God is totally sovereign and in control.  He chooses among the children on earth who he will use for his purposes.  Long before Rebekah ever held her sons in her arms, she knew that her second child would be the one who God used to raise up his holy nation.

When the boys were born, the first child came out and everyone was shocked.  All they could talk about was how red and hairy he was.  He was so hairy that it looked like he was wearing animal fur!  They decided to name him Esau.

Rebekah didn’t have a lot of time after Esau  came.  The other son was following quickly behind.  In fact, the hand of the second son was gripping Esau’s foot as he came out!  So they decided to name him Jacob, because it means “heel.”

As the boys grew up, Rebekah and Isaac learned how very different each son was from the other.  Esau liked to go out to the wilderness and hunt.  Jacob liked to spend time among the tents where the family lived.  He was quiet.  Isaac enjoyed the meat that Esau brought him.  He enjoyed his big, burly son the best.  But Rebekah loved Jacob more, and she carried in her heart the promise of God.  In the future, the older would serve the younger.

One day, Jacob was among the tents cooking stew.  Esau had been out in the open country, probably on a hunt.  It is hard work, and when he came home he was so hungry that he had begun to feel weak.  He smelled Jacob’s stew and that only made it worse!  “‘Quick’” he said to Jacob, “‘Let me have some of that red stew! I’m famished!’”

Jacob knew he had a chance to use this to get something he wanted.  He had been thinking about this for a long time.  He also knew how hungry Esau was when he came in from a hunt.  He said to his brother, “‘First, sell me your birthright.’”  Wow.  Esau was the firstborn son, and that birthright belonged to him.  It was a very precious, valuable thing.  It was a high honor.

In those days, the first son would inherit twice what all the other sons would receive when their father died.   For every two goats that Esau was supposed to inherit, Jacob would only get one goat.  But if Esau sold his birthright to Jacob, that meant that Jacob would be the one who received more.  Their father Isaac had received all of Abraham’s many animals and servants.  They were a very rich, princely family.  Jacob was asking Esau to trade hundreds of animals and great wealth in gold and silver for a bowl of soup.   But you know what?  Esau made the trade.

“‘Look, I am about to die’” he said.  “‘What good is a birthright to me?’”

Jacob wanted to make sure that he would really receive all the extra inheritance, so before he let Esau eat, he made him take an oath.  “‘Swear to me first.’”  Esau swore an oath to Jacob, promising the birthright to him.

Finally, Jacob gave Esau some bread and lentil soup.  Esau gobbled up the food.  When he left, his stomach was full, but his birthright was lost to his conniving brother.

 

Story 38: For the Love of Sarah

Genesis 26

Abraham and his entire tribe continued to move as nomads through the land, waiting on and trusting in the promises of God.  Someday, God would fulfill his covenant and give all the land to Abraham’s descendants, and they would fill the land like the stars fill the sky.

While they were staying in the region of Hebron, which is a part of Canaan, Abraham’s beloved wife died.  She was one hundred and twenty seven years old.

Sarah had stood by Abraham in faith, venturing out into unknown and dangerous lands with him as they waited on the promises of God together.   When Abraham asked her to protect him by telling kings that she was his sister, she submitted to her husband, and she saw God protect her from her husband’s mistakes.

Sarah was a woman of great beauty, not only with her outward feminine grace that so beguiled kings, but through the dignity and strength of how she carried herself through life.  She waited in patient faith as she bore the disgrace and pain of being childless for twenty five years.  All the while, she trusted God’s promise for the heir that her body had not provided.   Mistake though it was, she was willing to give another woman to her husband in hopes of seeing God’s promise fulfilled.  But God had his own plan to provide, in just the time and way he said he would: through Sarah, the wife of Abraham’s own flesh.  Sarah lived to see her one and only son grow to the age of thirty seven.

The impact of Sarah’s faith on history is something so great that we can’t measure it.  Two thousand years after she died, Peter, the disciple of Jesus, wrote about her.  Here is what he said:

“Wives, in the same way submit to your husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives.  Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as braided hair and the wearing of gold jewelry and fine clothes.  Instead, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.  For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to make themselves beautiful.   They were submissive to their own husbands, like Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him her master.  You are her daughters if you do what is right and do not give way to fear.”

1 Peter 3:1-6

Peter described Sarah’s faithful life as his prime example of what is truly beautiful.  Those who have faith and do not fear, doing what is right, are Sarah’s spiritual daughters.  They become part of her family and her heritage of beauty to the world.  That was true during the time of Sarah and when Peter wrote those words two thousand years later.  Two thousand more years have passed and they are still true today.  God’s image of womanly beauty through the life of Sarah has stood true for four thousand years and counting.

In our story, the life of Sarah, Abraham’s great love, had come to an end.  Abraham went to her body and bowed over it in grief.  He wept and wept with sorrow.  He wanted to provide a secure and honored place to bury her in the Land of Promise, where they had journeyed so many years together.  The land was not his yet, but he had faith that it would be…it was the relentless, underlying belief that decided every choice he made.

Abraham rose from his place beside his wife and ventured out to visit the Hittites.  At the time, they were among the people who owned the Land of Promise, which they called Canaan.  Abraham went to see if he could purchase a piece of the land from them so he could lay his wife to rest.

God had blessed Abraham over many years of faithfulness.  He had great herds of animals and hundreds of servants that made up one of the most powerful, well trained armies in the region.    God had blessed him with great wealth through gifts from kings and the plunders of war.  Many of the wells for precious water throughout the region had been dug by Abraham and his servants over decades as they roamed the land.   Abraham and Sarah and all the people of their travelling clan had lived among the other nations for over fifty years.  The Hittite people of the region saw Abraham as a great prince, and Sarah was his queenly wife.  The death of this great man’s spouse was a very big deal to the Hittites.

When Abraham went to the gate of the Hittite village where business was done, the Hittite people gathered, eager to hear the famed man speak.  Abraham gave his request,  “‘I am an alien and a stranger among you,’”  he said.  “‘Sell me some property for a burial site here so I can bury my dead.’”

The Hittites replied, “‘Sir, listen to us.  You are a mighty prince among us.  Bury your dead in the choicest of our tombs.  None of us will refuse you his tomb for burying your dead.’”

The Hittites gave Abraham, the princely foreigner, the right to bury his wife within the boundaries of their land.  That was a major victory for Abraham.  The people of each of these cities and clans held on tightly to their territory. Yet they graciously offered Abraham the right to choose from any of the tombs of their own families to take as his own.  They considered it an honor that this great man would have the grave of his family among them.

Abraham was deeply respectful of their offer.  He bowed down before the Hittite people who had gathered and said, “‘If you are willing to let me bury my dead, then listen to me and intercede with Ephron son of Zohar on my behalf so he will sell me the cave of Machpelah, which belongs to him and is at the end of his field.  Ask him to sell it to me for the full price as a burial site among you.’”

Abraham would not let them give him a tomb for free.  If it came freely, they might take it back one day!  For Abraham, this tomb was a way of claiming the promises of God.  He wanted to establish a place in the Land of Promise that was the permanent resting place for his descendants, starting with the mother of the nation God had promised.  Abraham told the townspeople that he had found a piece of land he liked, and it belonged to a man named Ephron.  Ephron said to Abraham, “‘Listen to me, my lord, the land is worth four hundred shekels of silver, but what is that between me and you?  Bury your dead.’”

Wow.  Four hundred shekels was a lot of money.  In those days, a normal farm laborer might

make ten shekels of silver a year for his work.  He could work his whole life and never make four hundred shekels!  This was very valuable land, and Ephron had given a very high price.   Yet Abraham agreed to pay it.  He bowed low before the people to show his respect and thankfulness.  Then he weighed out four hundred shekels of silver so he could bury his Sarah in a place of honor and dignity.  Abraham had not only purchased the tomb, but all the land around it with a field of grass and tall trees.  Then he took the body of his beloved wife into the cave and laid her there.

God had promised Abraham the land, but the Lord had not given it yet.  Abraham had waited in faith all of those years, depending on God.  The first piece of the Land of Promise that belonged to Abraham was purchased for the love of Sarah.  By faith, he believed that one day, her burial site would be surrounded by the towns and fields of their offspring.

Story 33: Abraham and Abimelech and the Power of Repentance

Genesis 20

After the mighty hand of God came in judgment on the plains of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham moved his clan to a place called Negev.  While he was there, he explained to the people that Sarah was his sister.  Once again, as he had in Egypt, Abraham feared that men would treat him badly when they saw the beauty of his wife (see Story 21).  Once again, he put her at risk.  Though Abraham was unfaithful, God would stand in resolute faithfulness to His covenant promises.  The chaos created by humanity because of our weakness cannot thwart the strength of God in our history.

Abraham’s fears were not without reason.  Sarah was a woman of great beauty.  When the king of the city of Gerar saw Sarah, he wanted her to be his own.  And why not?  She was the sister of the wealthy traveler who had come to his region to live.  He did not understand that he was in danger of committing a great sin.

The Lord came to King Abimelech and warned him in a dream.  He said, “‘You are as good as dead because of the woman you have taken; she is a married woman.’”

Abimelech hadn’t touched Sarah, so he asked God, “‘Lord, will you destroy an innocent nation?  Did he not say to me, “She is my sister,” and didn’t she also say, “He is my brother”?  I have done this with a clear conscience and clean hands.’”

God replied, “‘Yes, I know you did this with a clear conscience.  That is why I did not let you touch her.  Now return the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you will live.  But if you do not return her, you may be sure that you and all yours will die.’”

Wow.  Isn’t it interesting that God protected Abimelech from sin?  Isn’t it fascinating that it was because he knew Abimelech was innocent in his heart?  God understands the complexities of life in a very messed up and complex human world.  He gets the confusion of life around us.  We don’t see a harsh, legalist God here.  He stakes his judgment on the condition of our hearts and the nature of our intentions.

What would Abimelech do now?

The Bible makes sure we know that the very next morning, bright and early, Abimelech brought together all of his officials and told them about his dream.  He didn’t wait a few days.  He didn’t forget or disregard the voice of God because it came in the form of the dream.  And when he told his officials, he explained in in a way that made them take it seriously, too.  It filled them with fear.  They each had a reverence for this God who had come to their king.  Their counsel led Abimelech to take action.

Abimelech called for Abraham and asked, “‘What have you done to us?  How have I wronged you that you have brought such great guilt upon me and my kingdom?  You have done things to me that should not be done.’”

Abimelech and his people had a high and godly view of marriage.  The thought of violating the marriage covenant between Abraham and Sarah was horrifying.  How could Abraham have been so quick to give his wife away?

When we look at the role Abraham plays in human history, it is stunning.  Abraham was the great patriarch, the first man with whom God made His mighty covenant to change the world.  He would be described in the word of God as the great man of faith.  He would be famous for his faith for thousands of years across three of the world’s major religions.  In fact, he could be said to be the first founder of all three.  He was father of Judaism, which is the parent faith of Christianity, and Islam.  Yet in this story, as a normal man facing peril, he is righteously rebuked by a common tribal king for his lack of faith.

Abraham explained to Abimelech that he didn’t think Abimelech’s people feared the LORD.  He said that he was afraid that they would kill him so they could get to Sarah.  He told how he asked Sarah to show her love to him by telling everyone that he was her brother.

This was partly true.   Sarah was the daughter of Abraham’s father, but they had different mothers.  In those days, marriage within a family was a way of protecting and providing for their children.

In a way, Abraham was admitting that he had lacked faith.  He didn’t trust that God would watch over and protect him.  He tried to find his own way to save his life…even though it might cost Sarah greatly.  Once again, he had put the covenant at risk.  Sarah was to be the mother of God’s priestly nation, but here she was, living in the home of a foreign king.

Abimelech returned Sarah to Abraham.  In some ways, he was more protective of Sarah than Abraham had been.  Then he gave Abraham sheep and cattle, male and female slaves, and he offered Abraham his first choice of his lands.  He could live wherever he wanted in Gerah.  And for Sarah, he gave a thousand shekels of silver to Abraham for the offense of taking his wife into his harem.  That was an extravagant amount of wealth.    It would pay a hundred laborers to work for an entire year.  Sarah was well vindicated for this terrible violation of her safety and dignity.

How greatly Abraham had misjudged Abimelech, as well as God.  Abimelech and his men feared the LORD and listened when God came in a dream.   They responded immediately with repentant obedience and went out of their way to lavishly make things right.

It interesting to compare how different these people were from the people of Sodom and Gomorrah (see Story 23 and Story 32).  There is a reason that these stories are put right next to each other in scripture.  We are meant to compare them and look at the way God responded to each.  The comparison is meant to highlight important things about what draws God’s judgment or favor…it is meant to display the goodness of His ways when dealing with a wayward race and to teach us how we are to come to Him for right relationship.

The nation of Sodom (which was probably more like what we would consider a large village in our time) had become so corrupt that when two strangers came to visit their city, the men of the city laid siege to the home where they were staying and demanded their right to rape them.  Imagine the horrors…the violence, abuse, and toxic immorality…of such a place.  What these men did not understand was that these two visitors were actually the angels of God.  They had come to warn Abraham’s nephew to leave the city before they brought God’s fiery and cleansing judgment against the despicable culture that had plunged the entire community in utter, irreversible bondage.

But this wasn’t Abraham’s first encounter with the people of Sodom and Gomorrah.  In fact, he had already saved their lives.  When Abraham rescued the people of Sodom and Gomorrah after they had been defeated by a foreign army, they tried to demand that he give them the booty from the war.  According to the rules of that time, the booty belonged to Abraham.  Though he was in no danger of captivity himself, he risked his life and the life of his men to rescue these ungrateful people, and the booty was proper reward.  It was a form of despicable ungratefulness to try to get it back.

The hardness of their hearts was already so complete that when God brought them a savior, they had no vision for repentance.  They could have seen the higher ways of Abraham and the strength it gave him to conquer kings.  They could have witnessed the honorable and godly relationship between Abraham and Melchizedek, the great priest of Salem, and been humbled by their dignity.  When God intervened, they could have been changed, but they weren’t, and it led to their total destruction.

Abilmelech and his officials did not make that mistake.  When God showed up, they repented.  They honored the God of Abraham, altered their behavior, and were saved from judgment.

Just as the Lord said, Abraham prayed for Abimelech and his household.  God had placed some form of curse on them, and his wife and the women of his slave girls could not have children.  God heard Abraham’s pray and the household of Abimelech was healed.  In the process, God restored not only Abimelech’s people, but the dignity and position of Abraham as the man of God’s choosing.

The faith of Abraham had failed.  When we see the heart of this godly man in the middle of his fears, it is easier to understand that he was very much a normal human.  All of the great, courageous acts and steadfast, ongoing faithfulness was done by a man who feared death and longed for peace.  His failure in this story highlights the fact that in all of the other stories, Abraham was having to make decisions in the quietness of his heart…he was having to choose faith instead of fear.

God knew about all of those hundreds of silent decisions to choose to trust Him, and He had grace and protection for Abraham when he failed.

Story 27: Ratifying the Covenant

Genesis 15:9-21

In the days of Abram, covenants were an important part of human society.  They were treaties or agreements between two groups that would keep the peace between them.  In a time when a conflict against another family, clan, or nation could bring bloodshed and war, those covenants were deeply valued.

Covenants were often used to bring an end to war and chaos.  A king might war against a nation and conquer it, and then make a covenant with them to end the fighting.  He might promise to give protection to the conquered people, and they would make promises to serve him and to be his ally against any other nation.  These covenants were common all over the world at that time.  They were often written down on a special scroll and sealed.  Both the king and the conquered nation would be greatly disgraced if they did not keep their own side of the covenant.  They had bound themselves to a promise, and they had to be willing to do anything they could to honor it.

Part of covenant making often included a ceremony or a ritual to show the great importance and worth of the commitments being made.  One part of that ritual was often to take an animal and sacrifice it.  It was a symbol of the punishment that should happen to the person that did not keep his side of the covenant.  The sacrifices held potent, binding power over the people because they believed these rituals had the force to influence the blessing and cursing of their lives.

God was about to reestablish and finalize His covenant with Abram.  Only this one would be a different kind of covenant.  This was no mere human king trying to make peace after victory.  It was between God Himself and a human.  Almighty God, who needs nothing from anyone and can do all things, was binding Himself to a promise being made to a person.  Imagine!  The most powerful Being in the universe was going to limit and organize His future work to make sure that He honored this promise.

It was also a different kind of covenant because God, the Divine King, was the only One who had to do anything to keep it.  There was no job for Abram to do here.  The promise was one way.  The blessings of the covenant flowed from the LORD to His chosen people, not the other way around.  God would give all the lands of the Canaanite people to the children of Abram, and they would become a great nation.

It was through that special nation that all nations of the world would be blessed.  The Great Hope of God’s entire plan for humanity was being sealed with the fate of this nation.  This moment with Abram was a lofty and holy moment in the history of the world.  God provided a ritual to show the tremendous, sacred importance of this agreement.  Abram was not to bring just one animal; God told him to bring a heifer, a goat, a ram, a dove, and a pigeon.

Abram obeyed immediately.  He brought one of each of these animals and cut them into halves.  He divided the halves, putting one part of each animal on the left, and one part on the right.  In between was a space that made a pathway.

As Abram worked, great carnivorous birds flew down and tried to eat the offerings, but Abram fought them off.  As the sun began to set, Abram fell into a deep sleep.  The Bible calls it a thick and dreadful darkness that came over him, and God spoke to him about hard things of the future:

 

“‘Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years.  But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions.  You, however, will go to your fathers in peace and be buried at a good old age.  In the fourth generation, your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.’”

Gen. 15:13-16  

 

God is sovereign over history, and He has prepared His sacred plans ahead of time.  Abram’s descendants would end up moving to a country far away from this land that God had promised.  While they were there, God would bring His children into a difficult time of suffering and oppression.  They would be humbled as a people, working as slaves under the grip of another nation for four hundred years.  Four hundred years!  Can you imagine?

God told Abram that the whole time his descendants were gone, the people who were already in the land of promise, sometimes called the Amorites, would have time to change from their sinful ways.  God had already shown Himself to them through the life of Abram and He had given them Melchizedek, the king of Salem and the priest of the Most High God.  The Amorites could choose to follow the best, most clear examples of righteous faith and dependence on the LORD.  Or they could choose to live in wickedness and sin, violently taking what they wanted and destroying all that was good and pure in their societies.

God knew the future.  He knew exactly what they would decide.  They would ever and always turn to evil.  But God was still determined to give them their time to change.  After four hundred years, God’s gracious patience would come to an end.  His wrath would pour out on these cities and nations.  They would no longer be allowed to pollute the land that God had given them with their despicable sin.

God would bring His own people, the children of Abram, back out of the land where they were slaves.  After four hundred years, they would return.  Only this time, they would come as the hand of God’s judgment and destroy the sinful nations in war.  The righteous would do battle against the wicked for Yahweh.  These things are the darkness and dread of life in a cursed world where the rulers of the earth rebel against the goodness of their Divine King.  Such is the suffering of God’s people as they lived in the midst of the rebellion.  But their faithfulness to God would be richly rewarded.  Their appointed time of suffering would be over, and God would bless them with a beautiful homeland.

The promises of God had been given, and it was time for the ceremony to seal the covenant between the LORD and Abram:

 

 “‘When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces.  On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram and said, “To your descendants I give this land”’” (Genesis 15:13-18a).

 

Who do you think it was who carried the smoking firepot between the animals?  It was God himself.  He was using the powerful traditions of Abram’s culture to show His servant the solemnity of His promise.  This covenant was binding, and the honor of God Himself was now at stake.

 

Story 26: Strange Mysteries from Distant Times: The Sealing of the Covenant

Genesis 15

When God called Abram to leave his home and journey to the land of promise, He gave conditions.  If Abram obeyed, then God would bless him.  Abram did obey.  He ventured out into the unknown with his barren wife, taking everything with him.  He completely left the life he’d had behind, trusting totally in God’s promise.  Over time, Abram proved his faith in the LORD in new and greater ways.  He righteously lived for the Most High God in the midst of a pagan, idolatrous place and waited for God to bring His covenant blessings. And so God came to him with His covenant once again, only this time things had changed a bit.  Now God made His promises without condition.  Abram’s faith was established, and God could assure him that His promises would come true no matter what.  God would give him more descendants than there were stars in the sky, and He would deliver to them the land of the Canaanites.  Yet Abram still felt unsure.  How could he know that God would truly give him the land?

For his answer, LORD told Abram to bring a cow, a goat and a ram, a dove and a young pigeon.  Does that seem like a strange answer to you?  Why bring animals?

When we read the Bible, we always need to remember the time of human history we are reading about.  We are reaching back through time to a world far different from our own.  Often what we read will seem mysterious and strange to us.  Abraham lived in what we called the Ancient Near East.  In order to understand the story, we have to imagine what that world was like.  So let’s try.

It was quieter.  These were the days before electricity, cars, and airplanes.  There were no televisions or radios, engines or blasting horns or telephone chatter.  The noises that filled their lives were the quiet sounds of their flocks and herds, the blowing wind, and the tinkling of streams.  It was the sound of the women singing as they hand washed clothes in water hauled from a well or at the river.  It was the discussions and calls of men at their work.  There were no photographs or paintings. The only faces any one person knew throughout his whole life were those from his own village or town.  Any visitor would have been a great curiosity.  It would have been a new face to see!

Nature was their artwork.  Trees and streams, sunrises and sunsets and the vast display of stars in the dark night sky were the things of beauty that filled their lives.  It was a simpler world, but it was a deeper one.  They ate the same basic food every day with a profound gratitude that is hard for us to understand.  You see, in those days, they knew what famine was like.  Most families went through at least one or two hard seasons when they went hungry for weeks and months on end.  They were keenly aware of the weather and how the crops were doing because it all had an immediate impact on their own survival.  It strengthened their spirit of gratefulness and sharpened the pleasure of their food in times when it was abundant.

When God showed Abram the stars and used them to explain the wonderful blessing He was going to give him, He was using the most magnificent and awesome visual in Abraham’s world to inspire his faith.  Humans will never paint or create anything that will surpass the beauty of a starry night.  But we may have lost our ability to cherish and wonder at the sprawling night sky the way the ancient people did.  It was their nightly glory.

Now God would strengthen Abram’s faith by using animals as a symbol, just as He had used the stars.  In Abram’s time, human society was largely dependent on their animals to survive.  For a family, each creature brought value and security to their home as their flocks and herds grew.  Their lives were arranged around making sure the animals were protected and fed.  They moved when they needed to find more grassland for them.   They took special care to keep out of the way of bandits and thieves who might steal them.

The people of Abram’s day lived their lives close to their animals to make sure they could protect them.  They could hear their sheep and goats bleating through the night and drank the milk from their own cows and goats in the day.  They did not go to a store to buy their sandals and sweaters.  The leather and wool they used to make their own clothes and shoes came from creatures they had watched being born.

They did not go to a store to buy meat.  Usually, the only time they ate meat was when a sacrificial offering was made.  It was a rare treat, a feast that would mark the day as a high point in the year.

Every piece of meat they ate came from a creature they had watched over, fed, and nursed back to health when it was sick.  Their whole lives were filled with the provisions given to them by the lives of their animals.  These creatures had worth and meaning, what they offered humanity were answers to some of the great needs and enjoyments of life.  They were gifts from God, and they were meant for the provision of those things.  For the people of Abram’s time, the sacrifice of meat had greater meaning and worth than most of us can possibly understand.

In the societies of Abram’s time, the value of animals was so great that killing one of them was something that was only done with great consideration and care.  Usually it was only done for the high and sacred moments devoted to their gods.  Sometimes they were used for feasts.  Sometimes they were used when a great treaty was being made between one king and another, or between a king and his people.  When the animal became a sacrificial offering, its death showed the high importance of the occasion.

God  understood the culture and times that Abram was living, and so He chose a ceremony that Abram would understand, that would be meaningful to him.  He told Abram to bring Him a cow, a goat and a ram, a dove and a young pigeon.  These creatures would become the sacrificial offerings to commemorate the high and holy making of the Great Covenant between God and His chosen servant.

 

Story 25: The Covenant: Descendants and Land

Genesis 15:1-8

Wow.  Imagine the difference in the life of Abram from the time we began his story until now.  He went from being a wandering nomad with his wife and nephew to a man of vast wealth.  He had his own private army of highly trained warriors who conquered five kings and saved the people of the Jordan River Valley from captivity.  He was now highly respected throughout the land.  But there was something far more important happening, something that made all the rest of it possible.  As the years went by, Abram’s faith was stretched further and further, and his ability to depend on God’s promises was growing into a mighty power.  It was the kind of power that God could bless.  As God expanded Abram’s influence and power, Abram kept his eyes fixed on the Lord in trust and received only what was clearly from God’s hand. Through his determined faith, Abram was exhibiting glorious righteousness to a watching world.

Yet there was still a tremendous ache for this wise and aging man.  Abram and his beloved wife were still without a child.  How would God make Abram’s descendents into a great nation if they had no son?  What good was their wealth and reputation if the life of Abram died with him and his wife?  Who would they pass it on to?  The Lord spoke to him and said,

 

“‘Do not be afraid, Abram,

I am your shield,

your very great reward.’”

Genesis 15:1b

God knew the fears on the heart of his faithful servant and pursued him, promising to be his divine protection.  This promise was a bit different from what God had given in the past.  Before, there was always a condition.  In order to receive the promise, Abram had to show his faith through obedience. Over those many years, Abram had proven his faith, and now the LORD was coming to him with the fullness of His covenantal promises.  God would uphold His side to His servant no matter what lay ahead.  Through all of history, the blessings of this covenant would be utterly unchangeable.

When Abram heard this, he came to his LORD and asked the questions that so troubled his heart.  “‘O Sovereign LORD, what can You give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus…You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir’” (Gen. 15:2-3).

Abram had trusted God with his whole future, but he and his wife were growing old, and the promises of God seemed more and more unlikely.  How could Abram’s faith stretch so far as to believe the impossible?

God’s plan for His loyal servant was already set in history.  The future was as sure as the past because God had made it so.  In fact, He had allowed everything to get to the point where His promises seemed impossible to Abram so that he would have to utterly rely on the LORD in faith.  Everyone would know that when God’s blessings came, it could only have come from Him.  His blessings on Abram would give the Lord great glory before all the nations of the region.  The holiness and power of the Most High God was being declared through the most personal longings of Abram and Sarai’s life.

The LORD knew the discouragement of His beloved servant, and so He began to explain more about the mighty, unbreakable covenant that He had made with Abram in Genesis 12.  He said:

 

“‘This man [Eliezer] will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir.’  He took him outside and said, ‘Look up at the heavens and count the stars-if indeed you can count them.’  Then He said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.’”

Gen. 15:4-5

Abram could not imagine how wide and great God’s blessings would become, so God had to bring him out into the night sky and show him the universe.   And in that sacred moment when God’s Word came to him, Abram believed what God said, and his faith was credited to him as righteousness.  Abram was righteous in the eyes of God simply because he believed the LORD.  He did what all the other nations and tribes refused to do.  He surrendered in trust to the will of the One who made him.

 

Then God said, “‘I am the LORD.’”

 

Any time God says that in the Bible, it means that whatever comes next is big.  Really big.  It means that God is sealing His next words with the integrity of His own character.  It bears tremendous power and gravity.  It is going to happen because He is permanent and eternal and He doesn’t go back on His word.  So the LORD said to Abram:

 

“‘I am the LORD, who brought you out of Ur of the land of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it’”

 

 Once again, God gave Abram a wonderful promise.  All the land of the whole region where the Canaanite cities and nations lived would one day belong to Abram’s family.  Abram took God’s word very seriously.  Purely by faith, he was staking his whole life on this promise.  So once again, he came to his God with an honest question about his doubts and fears.  “‘O Sovereign LORD, how can I know that I will gain possession of it?’”

Story 20: The Call of Abram

Genesis 12:1-9

Abram’s life was in shambles.  He was seventy-five years old when his father had died.  He was living in Haran, far from the land of Canaan, the place where his father Terah had hoped to go.  His beloved wife remained barren, which brought deep shame to her from everyone in their society.  Yet they faithfully bore the responsibility of caring for Lot, Abram’s orphaned nephew.    Then the LORD came to him.  What God said to him is one of the most significant things ever declared in history;

 

“‘Leave your country, your people, and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you.

I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you;

I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.

I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse;

and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.’”

Genesis 12:1-3

 

Wow.  Read that again.  God told Abram to leave everything.  He was to abandon whatever life he had in Haran and go into a strange land.  But with that obedience would come overwhelming blessings.  God would lead him to Canaan, the land of his destiny.  And for his faith and obedience, the LORD promised to make Abram’s descendants into a mighty nation.

This promise was called a covenant.   If Abram obeyed, God would bind himself to Abram with a sacred promise that he would never break.  Now remember, when God speaks, things really happened.  That is how he made the whole universe.  God’s words also make things happen in the future.  Abram could be as certain that God would keep his covenant as he was that the sun would rise every morning.  And what a blessing this covenant would be.

Abram would be like Shem!  He would father an entire people group!  God also promised to make his name great.  God would curse anyone that tried to hurt him. And somehow, God was going to use him to bless all the nations of the world.  What a bright and wonderful hope!  But Abram had to choose to believe it.

When God promised to protect Cain after he murdered his brother, Cain chose not to believe.  He built a fortress city to protect himself.  He did it on his own.  When the children of Noah were wandering the earth, they were supposed to scatter to far off lands.  Instead, they stayed together.  They thought they could keep themselves safe apart from the help of God.  They tried to make a great name for themselves apart from God by building a temple.  They did it on their own.

Now Abram would have a chance to show where he put his hope.  He could follow in the ways of Cain and build a life on his own.  Or he could do it God’s way.  He would have to have faith to leave the land of safety and go out into dangerous regions of unknown people and their unknown ways.  He would have to trust God to protect him in ways his forefathers had refused to.  Abram would have to have faith that God could create something out of absolutely nothing.  It was impossible for his wife to have children, let alone give birth to a nation.  He would be staking his whole life on a miracle.  But in the end, he would have the highest honor.  He would not have to make his own name great.  It would be the gift of God for his righteous faith.  He would be rewarded for trusting in the LORD with abundant blessings. Those blessings would be poured out onto the nations of the whole world!

What would Abram do?  Would he rebel like so many had in the past, showing himself to be the offspring of God’s enemy?  Or would he stand in faith and see the blessings of God?

Abram proved to be a man of wondrous faith.  It was very simple.  He just did as God said.  The Bible tells it this way: “So Abram left, as the LORD had told him.”  He heard, and he obeyed.

How different was Abram’s pilgrimage from the writhing efforts of the people at Babel!   When Abram chose to step out in faith, the course of human history changed.  The rest of the Torah, which is the first five books of the Bible, will tell the story of how God kept His promise to Abraham.  He would raise up a nation through Abram, and He would take them to the Land of Promise.  The rest of the Old Testament, all the books after the Torah, is the story of God’s faithful relationship with Abraham’s children once they entered the Land of Promise.  It all began with God’s powerful, initiating promise and Abram’s first great steps of faith.

Abram’s nephew Lot went with Abram and Sarai, and they brought everything they owned with them.  Their servants came with them, too.  They threw everything they had into God’s plan!  They headed for the land of Canaan, and as they passed through, right into the heart of the land, God appeared to Abram again.  He said, “‘To your offspring I will give this land.’”  What a beautiful promise to a man who had spent so many years without children.  What a wonderful promise to see wide, vast lengths of lands stretching in all directions and know that God Himself had claimed it for him!  How do you think Abram felt as he looked out on the trees, the great river Jordan, and the mountains and valleys of Canaan?  Because God said so, the land was as good as Abram’s, even though all kinds of other mini nations and tribes, cities and villages of people were already living there.  The land was Abram’s because God gave it to him, and he is the Maker and Owner of it all.  Yet He also had a plan for how Abram’s descendants would take the land, and that time had not yet come.  For the two great blessings of God’s covenant promise, for a child and land, Abram was being called on to wait.

Abram believed the LORD and built an altar to Him.  Once again, Abram showed himself to be totally different from the other people and nations of the world.  Where they built massive cities and empires for their own glory, Abram left the city to become a nomadic wanderer, unknown and far away from the places where the powerful built their fame and their palaces.  Where the people of the world plotted to build idols and temples to false gods, Abram faithfully built an altar to the true and living God.  Just as Noah had proven himself to be righteous and faithful in all he did, Abram was showing that he was a man that God could trust to honor and obey his commands.  He was proving to be the right man to be the father of God’s priestly nation.

The family traveled on to a place near Bethel, where Abraham built another altar to the LORD.  Building these altars was a way of claiming the land for God.  The local people, called the Canaanites, worshiped demonic idols.  They polluted the land with their devotion to false gods and sinful lives.  But Abram had come as an act of worship to the God of the universe.  He stood against the religious deception and declared in a physical way that he was not given over to the fear and power of Satan’s idols.  Each altar showed Abram’s faith that one day his descendants would rule there.  And at each stage, Abram continued to turn to God in dependence and praise.

Story 19: From Shem to Abram

Genesis 11:10-32

When we look at the time between Adam and Noah, there were ten generations of humans that multiplied on the earth.  They became so hardened and wicked that God had to wash the earth clean of their polluting sin.  God started the human race all over again through the sons of Noah.  Two years after the waters of the Flood went down, Shem, the son of God’s great blessing, and his wife had a child, and they named him Arphaxad.  When he grew up, he also had a son, and later that son had a son.  This carried on for ten generations.  Now the Bible points out someone who was born in the tenth generation after Noah.  His name was Abram.  In Scripture, the number ten is a symbol of perfection or completion.  By pointing out the generations broken into groups of ten descendants, the biblical author (who we believe to be Moses) was pointing out that just as with Noah, the time had come for God to move.  He was going to fulfill a new step in His perfect, sovereign plan to save the world.

But first, we have to ask, why did the world need saving?  Hadn’t Noah ushered in a whole new era for the human race?  Hadn’t everything changed?  Did the rebellion continue?  Throughout the those ten generations, had the people become just as wicked as they were right before the Flood?

We already know the answer, don’t we?  We learn a lot when we read the Table of Nations (see Story 16 and 17) and the story of the tower of Babel (see Story 18).  Humanity would utterly reject God once again.  They would choose violence, hatred, and corruption instead of the bright, beautiful goodness and purity of the Almighty Lord.  What was God going to do?

The Lord had already promised not to send another flood.  Now God was going to do a new thing.  He was going to raise up another man of righteous faith.  Only this man would be used by God in a very different way.  God had previously saved the human race from total extinction through Noah’s family. The earth had been cleansed of wickedness by the flood.  Now, God was going to create a nation that would be given a way to continually come to him for cleansing of their sin.  Their pursuit of their righteous Lord would create a purified place on earth so that God’s holy presence could rest among them in the Most Holy Place.  He would be their God, and they would be His people…and they would be a priestly nation that would serve the rest of humanity.

The generations of this nation would come from one man.  He would be the first step in God’s Great Solution to the problem of sin.  For you see, in God’s Great Solution, the problem of sin and death and the horrific curse would be taken care of completely and finally.  One day, humans would be given a new heart.  They would be able to love the Lord and walk in holiness just as they had in the Garden of Eden!

That is all very exciting, but we are rushing ahead of ourselves.  That is the end of the story, and the human race is not there yet.  Those amazing and wonderful things are still to come at the end of time. We await them with great joy!

God’s amazing plan, His Great Solution to the problem of sin, started in the tenth generation after Noah. God would raise up a man of great faith.  This man would be the beginning of a mighty new work.  His life is so important that the Bible stops telling the story of all humanity and the great nations and focuses close up onto this one man’s little world.  We are about to hear his story, and we have a lot to learn.  We can grow to love him, because this man is the great spiritual father of everyone that has faith in God.

The sons of the tenth generation from the line of Shem were brought into the world by a man named Terah.  He had three sons and their names were Abram, Nahor, and Haran.  After they had grown, a terrible tragedy came upon the family.  Haran died.  He had a son and a daughter who were left vulnerable.   In our time, this is a horrible thing.  In those days it was far worse.  The tribal living of the Ancient Near East was brutal and unforgiving.  It was dangerous for a woman to be alone.  What was the family going to do?   The best way to take care of Haran’s daughter was to find her a husband.  They decided that Haran’s daughter, Milcah, would marry Nahor.  He would be her husband and her protector.  Terah and Abram would raise Haran’s son, Lot, and watch over him.

Abram was married to a woman named Sarai, which meant “princess.”  Abram’s wife was very beautiful, and their love for each other was very great.  But over the years, they experienced a terrible grief.  Sarai was barren.  She could not have children.  What terrible pain it must have caused her that she couldn’t give her husband the great gift of a child.  How hard it must have been for Abram to see his wife go year after year without a baby in her arms.  Their future must have seemed dry and pale without the joy of new life.  Why had God withheld from them that beautiful blessing…the privilege of obedience to be fruitful and multiply?  They would each have to depend on God’s comfort and grace. They would have to depend on Him for hope.

Terah decided it was time to leave Ur, the grand city that was their home, and move to the land of the Canaanites.  His sons and their wives went with him.  But along the way, after a long journey, they stopped at a place called Haran and settled there, .  They had traveled five hundred and fifty miles, but they hadn’t made it to the land of Canaan.  They hadn’t reached their goal.  Then, after many years of living at the half-way point, Terah died.

What dark days those must have been for Abram.  There he was in Haran with his barren wife, grieving over his father, and caring for his brother’s son.  And he was still miles and miles from Canaan, the land of their destiny.

Yet Abram and Sarai continued on faithfully bearing the responsibility of caring for Lot, Abram’s orphaned nephew.

Then one day, something remarkable happened.  The LORD came to Abram.  What God said to him is one of the most significant things ever spoken in history:

 

“‘Leave your country, your people, and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you.

I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you;

I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.

I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse;

and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.’”

Genesis 12:1-3

 

Wow.  Read that again.  God told Abram to leave everything.  He was to abandon whatever life he had in Haran and go into a strange land.  But with that obedience would come with overwhelming blessings.  God would lead him to Canaan, the land of his destiny.  And for his faith and obedience, the LORD promised to make Abram’s descendants into a mighty nation.

This promise was called a covenant.   If Abram obeyed, God would bind Himself to Abram with a sacred promise that He would never break.  Now remember, when God speaks, things happen!  He created the whole universe by the words of His mouth.  God’s words would also cause things to happen in the future.  Abram could be as certain that God would keep His covenant as he was that the sun would rise every morning.  And what a blessing this covenant would be.

Abram would be like Shem!  He would father an entire people group!  God also promised to make his name great.  God would curse anyone that tried to hurt him. And somehow, God was going to use him to bless all the nations of the world.  What a bright and wonderful hope!  But Abram had to choose to believe it.

When God promised to protect Cain after he murdered his brother, Cain chose not to believe that promise.  He built a fortress city to protect himself instead.  He did it on his own.  When the children of Noah were wandering the earth, they were supposed to scatter to far off lands.  Instead, they stayed together.  They thought they could keep themselves safe apart from the help of God.  They tried to make a great name for themselves apart from God by building a temple.  They did it on their own.

Now Abram would have a chance to show where he put his hope.  He could follow in the ways of Cain and build a life on his own.  Or he could do it God’s way.  He would have to have faith to leave the land of safety and go out into dangerous regions of unknown people and their unknown ways.  He would have to trust God to protect him in ways his forefathers had refused.  Abram would have to have faith that God could create something out of absolutely nothing.  It was impossible for his wife to have children, let alone give birth to a nation.  He would be staking his whole life on a miracle.  

Story 171: Passion Week: The Abomination of Desolation

Matthew 24:15-28; Mark 13:14-23; Luke 21:20-24

Earth in fire

Earth in fire

Jesus was sitting with His disciples on the Mount of Olives.  It was evening.  As they looked out on the City of Jerusalem, the Lord Jesus described to what the last stages of human life on Earth would be like, and it was a devastating picture.

There would be wars between nations. There would be great famines where many people and animals would take the long, slow path of death from lack of food and water. False prophets would rise up and claim to be the Christ, and many would follow them. It would be a time of terror, confusion, and pain.

Even in the midst of these horrors, God would continue to pursue humanity with His love. As human society and the earth groaned under the intensified suffering and weight of the Curse, the followers of Christ would carry the Good News of salvation out into the world. They would declare that the Lord Jesus had already won the way to freedom and peace, and that the end of the story was filled with hope. But just as the religious leader of Jesus’ time  rejected Christ when they met Him face to face, many would reject the message of His Kingdom when His followers proclaimed it to the world. In fact, they would persecute and destroy them.

Even as the Lord explained this hard truth to His disciples, He promised that everyone who followed Him to the end would receive a gift that is worth far more than anything they could lose in this world. They would receive everlasting life in the presence of Christ Himself.   The eternity before them was a place of perfect, overflowing abundance, a feast of happiness that would never it.  It would be more than they could ever ask for or imagine.  It was worth standing with Christ in this world to gain the immeasurable blessings of the world to come.

Imagine what those moments were like for the disciples that evening on the Mount of Olives…the cooling air, the darkening sky, the breeze, the holy city laid out before them with the massive edifice of the Temple rising up and dominating the skyline.  The history of Israel’s past stood before them in physical form as God’s Son explained the how future  history of the whole world  would unfold.   He began to describe what was going to happen in the final days, often called the Great Tribulation.

“‘So when you see standing in the holy place “the abomination that causes desolation,” spoken of through the prophet Daniel–let the reader understand–then let those who are in Judea fall to the mountains. Let no one on the roof of his house go down to take anything out of the house. Let no one in the field go back to get his cloak. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! Pray that your flight will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath. For then there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now–never to be equaled again.'”

What is this abomination of desolation? What could be so terrible that people will have to flee from their homes and fields to the mountains? Well, there is a prophesy about it in the Book of Daniel. It tells of an evil prince who will come and lead the people of earth into a time of terrible corruption. Here is how Daniel 9:27 describes him:

“And he will make a firm covenant with many for one week, but in the middle of the week he shall put a stop to sacrifice and grain offering; and on the wing of abominations shall come one who makes desolate, even until complete destruction, one that is decreed, is poured out on the one who makes desolate.”

These verses are challenging to understand. The Lord used terms like “weeks” as symbols of time that we don’t fully understand. Many think that the week was a symbol for seven years. Each day as a year when this terrible ruler will work great evil on the earth. When he puts an end to the sacrifice and offering, that is a symbol for the worship of the Most High God in the Temple that went on every day in Jerusalem. This evil leader will try to force the end of worship of the living God.

Many scholars believe that this prophecy has already been partly fulfilled. Several hundred years before Jesus, a terrible enemy of Israel named King Antiocus IV Epiphanes had the image of a Greek god put up in God’s holy temple. He ordered his men to do everything they could to desecrate and dishonor the Jewish God. He oppressed the Jewish people and made the life of Israel miserable. Other scholars believe this prophesy points to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 AD, just forty years after the death and resurrection of Christ. But it is clear that the full and final fulfillment of this prophesy will happen at the very end of time, when the great enemy of God, the Anti Christ, comes in power in his service to Satan and brings the worst corruption and wickedness that the world has ever seen. There is more to this prophecy to come in the New Testament. The Apostle Paul wrote about it in his letter to the Thessalonians. John, the beloved disciple of Jesus, also wrote about it in the Book of Revelation. This is the last book of the Bible and it describes how Christ is going to bring this world to an end and create a whole new Heaven and Earth. As that time comes near, the world will go through a Great Tribulation.

Jesus had more to say about it to His disciples:

“‘If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive, but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened. At that time if anyone says to you, “Look, here is the Christ!” or, “There he is!” do not believe it. For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect–if that were possible. See, I have told you ahead of time.'”

Jesus was being very careful to warn his followers. He wanted them to know, but He also wanted them to warn the generations of the future by writing this message down in the Bible. Someday, and it could be in our own time, believers will read these words and watch them happen right in front of them. We don’t know when it will happen, but the followers of Christ have clear directions about some things they can be sure of. The Lord went on:

“‘So if anyone tells you, “There he is, out in the desert,” do not go out, or “Here he is, in the inner rooms,” do not believe it. For as lightening that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will the coming of the Son of Man. Where ever there is a carcass, there the vultures will gather.'”

The Lord made it very, very clear. When He returns, He will not come back as a man walking around on the earth. He will come with a supernatural, glorious flash across the sky that everyone on earth will see.

A vulture is a bird that eats the remains of other animals. Before a flock of vultures descends on the dead body or a zebra or a cow, they will circle high, up in the sky. The people for miles around might not be able to see the dead animal on the ground, but they know that it is there because of the vultures flying way up in the air. In the same way, when Jesus returns to judge the death and destruction of sinful men on earth, He will come brightly flashing above. It will happen in a way that nobody will be able to mistake Him. The believers in Jesus through all the centuries of history can be sure that the men and women who claim to be Christ are false. We don’t have to pay any attention to them or give them our devotion. Our Lord and Savior is going to come again…but this time He’s coming across the sky! Jesus went on:

“‘Immediately after the distress of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken. At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory. And He will send His angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather His elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.””

Wow! What a glorious time that will be! After all the years of suffering, of hatred and malice and war, the Lord Jesus will come on the clouds. Read the prophecies of Daniel 7:13-14 and Zechariah 12:10-14 to see how God foretold of this magnificent time through His servants. The stars of the universe will shake, and He will be revealed to all the world as the eternal King. He will send His angels to gather the elect, His faithful and chosen servants on the earth, and bring them to Himself. Wow! Can you imagine what it was like for the disciples that evening as they sat on the Mount of Olives? Picture the lights coming on in the city of Jerusalem as twilight set in and the quiet appearance of stars in the darkening night sky.

Story 38: The Healing Power of Jesus

Matt. 8:2-4; Mark 1:40-45; Luke 5:12-16

Jesus healing in the land of Gennesaret

Throughout every generation since Christ died and rose again, artists have tried to capture the beauty of His stories. This expressive print shows many things about the stories when Jesus brought healing. We can see the suffering of the lepers in their weakened state and tattered clothes. Jesus is portrayed as reaching out for them in His drive to bring healing. Behind Him, two tall, powerful men stand arrogantly by, watching His every move. They were probably supposed to be the religious leaders that stood by with callous hearts in spite of the beauty right in front of them. Art can be a powerful way to move our minds and hearts into God’s story, to think more deeply about its characters, and find a richer sense of its meaning.

As Jesus and His disciples were traveling to the cities and towns around Galilee, the Lord continued to do His work of teaching and miraculous healing. Crowds came from all over to follow this wildly popular young preacher. Many came to see the incredible things He could do. But often people ended up talking about the remarkable things He said.

One day, a man who was covered with leprosy came up to Jesus. This terrible disease destroyed the lives of its victims. Their skin would grow white with hideous sores. Sometimes it would infect their hands and feet so that their fingers and toes would fall off. To the Jewish people, anyone with leprosy was considered ceremonially unclean. The Old Testament Law declared them so, and as painful as that must have been, it was a powerful protection for the people. It kept the disease from spreading. Yet for the lepers who had to live with the disease, it was a devastating consequence of humanity’s rebellion against God. They had to live their lives as untouchables, separated from their families and community. Anyone who touched them would become unclean.

The lepers of Jesus’ day isolated themselves far from the rest of the people. Imagine if you discovered your friend had leprosy? What if you husband or wife or child came down with it? What if it was you?   Imagine the pain of being sent away from the rest of your family. Imagine if nobody touched you or hugged you for years and years of your life. When you did walk among people, you had to cry out “Unclean!” to warn others not to accidentally rub against you. Imagine how deep the loneliness would become as the disease spread further across your body.

In the days of Christ, leprosy was a hopeless, painful prison. The leper who came up to Jesus desperate for freedom! He had heard of the young Preacher who seemed to have healing power. He searched out the Lord, and when he found Him, he fell down on his knees. He bowed before Jesus with his face to the ground and said, “‘Lord, if You are willing, You can make me clean.’” What confidence he had in the power of Christ!

As Jesus looked at the man, He was filled with compassion. He reached out His hand, touched the leper, and said, “‘I am willing. Be clean!’” Immediately, the leprosy completely cleared away. The man was totally and utterly healed.

Can you imagine what it must have felt like for this man to have someone reach out and touch him? How many years had it been since he had felt human touch? And what shock did he feel to see the disease disappear and leave healthy flesh behind! Everything had changed!

Now, according to Old Testament law, when Jesus touched this man, He became defiled. It was a real risk. What if He got the disease as well? But Jesus was more concerned about showing compassion. The Laws of Moses in the Old Testament were given to help the nation of Israel live with purity and holiness until the time of God’s great victory over sin and death. Jesus, the Holy One of God, who was perfectly pure in every way, touched what was impure and transformed it. But unlike everyone else, He had not become unclean! He was bringing in a whole new time of history! He had come to reverse the power of this Cursed world with the in breaking of the Kingdom of God!

But Jesus’ care for the man wasn’t over. He went ever further by giving him very careful commands, “‘See to it that you don’t tell this to anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing as a testimony to them.’”

According to the Law of Moses, the great Jewish covenant with the Most High God, anyone who was healed from a skin disease could go to the priest with special offerings. If the priest accepted his sacrifices, it was like a declaration that the healing was complete. The leper would be allowed to rejoin his family and live in society once again! His whole life would be restored. Isn’t it beautiful?

If the priest said that this leper was clean, it would also be a declaration of Christ’s divine power, for there was no cure to leprosy. Only God could do that! The leper was being given the honor of declaring the power of the Messiah to the religious leaders of his nation through the transformation of his own body.

But why wouldn’t Jesus want him to tell anyone about this amazing miracle? Why wouldn’t He want the word to spread? Well, if it did, the people would understand that the healing of a leper was a very powerful, supernatural act. Jesus knew that if people heard about it, they would start to seek Him out. But they would not be seeking Him with the desire to learn truth. They would come to see the thrill of spectacular miracles. They would treat the sacred preaching of God’s Son and His outpouring of compassion like it was entertainment. That is not why Jesus came, and it wasn’t what the miracles were for.

What would you do if you were the leper? If Jesus healed you from a disease that was destroying your life, what would you do when He gave you instructions? Would you obey?

Unfortunately, that is not what the leper did. Instead of going straight to the priest like Jesus said, he went around and told everyone what had happened. The whole town knew! It raised such an uproar that Jesus couldn’t even walk down the street. He had to stay outside of town in lonely places, far from the curious eyes of the people. Jesus had saved this man from isolation, but this man’s disobedience forced Jesus out to the areas where nobody lived.

Word continued to spread even farther about this miracle that only God could do. People came from all over for healing. Day after day, week after week, the Lord tended to the sick and the demon possessed, setting the captives free from their pain and shame.

In the midst of all this busy ministry and exhausting work, Jesus would take Himself away to be with His heavenly Father. He would go into the wilderness, far from the rest of humanity, to a place where He could pray.

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