Tag: Egypt

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 22: Parting Ways: The Foolish and the Wise

Genesis 13:1-18

Abram was a chosen man.  Adam and Eve, the first humans, had plunged the world under a terrible curse by rebelling against God in the garden of paradise that he had provided with him.  They had sided with his enemy and given the enemy power over them and all of their descendants.  Yet God had a solution already prepared.  From those descendants, God promised that one of them would one day crush the power of God’s enemy (Gen. 3:14-15).

One of the most significant stages in the unfolding of God’s plan was the covenant he made with Abram (see Gen. 12:1-4 or Story 20).  God was going to make Abram’s descendants into a great nation, and somehow he would bless all the other nations of the world through them. God brought Abram out of the land of his own people and brought him to the land of Canaan, the Land of Promise, that he would give to Abram’s children.  Abram was called to stay there and live by faith in what God promised he would do.  Yet at the first sign of trouble, Abram took his wife and nephew, all his flocks and servants, and left the land.  A famine had come, and they fled to Egypt.  That didn’t turn out too well (see Story 21).

After a coming against a crazy situation in Egypt, Abram moved his family back to Canaan, to a place called Negev.  They returned to the region near Bethel.  This was the place where Abram had built his second altar to God.  That moment was a high and holy moment for Abram; it was a place of great remembrance.  Perhaps Abram felt the need to seek a recommitment of faith to the covenant that had come to him there.

As Abraham was traveling about, his nephew Lot went with him.  Both of them had huge herds of cows and goats and sheep.  There were so many animals that they were eating up all the grass.  There wasn’t enough for all the animals to eat. The herdsmen and shepherds of Lot and Abram began to fight with each other over the land and the grass.

So Abram said to Lot, “‘Let’s not have any quarreling between you and me, or between your herdsmen and mine, for we are brothers.  Is not the whole land before you?  Let’s part company.  If you go to the left, I’ll go to the right; if you go to the right, I’ll go to the left’” (Gen. 13:8-9).

Wow.  That was very generous of Abram.  He had already raised Lot.  Now he was giving his nephew first choice of the land.  Yet Abraham was the elder man, and the covenant promise had been given to him.  He had every right to claim the best of the land for himself.

What does his choice show us about Abram?  He did not need to grasp with greed.  He was demonstrating with his actions that he put his trust in the Lord.  He believed his future was in the hands of God.  That gave him freedom to give lavishly and graciously to his nephew.  His desire to keep peace with his nephew was greater than his desire for the security and honor of wealth and property.

Lot looked out over the land and saw the plain of the Jordan River.  It was lush and green with well watered plants.  It was perfect ground for farming and raising crops.  His livestock would have plenty to eat.  It was like the garden of the LORD.  Lot claimed the very best for himself. His decision was based on what he could see.  It was not a decision made by faith in God.  Abram honored Lot’s choice and moved on to the land of Canaan.

Lot’s first selfish choice was almost as unwise as his second choice.  Of all the cities on the plain, he chose to pitch his tents next to the city of Sodom.  It was known to be a place of great wickedness, where the people lived lives of filthy immorality and despicable sin.  The wrath of God was filling up against them.  They were not wise people for Lot to befriend.

After Lot left, the LORD spoke with Abram once again:

 “‘Lift up your eyes from where you are and look north and south, east and west.  All the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring forever.  I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth, so that if anyone could count the dust, then your offspring could be counted.  Go, walk through the length and breadth of the land, for I am giving it to you’”

Gen. 13:14-17

Isn’t it interesting that God waited for Lot to make his choice and leave before He continued with the promise?

The LORD was rewarding Abram’s faith with assurances of His promises. Abram was to go out and walk along the land, knowing it was truly set apart for him by God.  As a king surveys the realm of his kingdom, Abram walked his land and saw with his own eyes this good place that God had prepared for him.

When Abram was done with his tour, he and Sarai moved with all their servants, flocks and herds to a place with beautiful trees called Mamre.  It was in the region of Hebron. This area was not like the place where Lot chose to live, where rivers provided a constant flow of water.  It was not like Egypt, with the never ending Nile.  Hebron was an area that depended on rain for water.  The people who lived there were at greater risk for drought or famine.   There was no river to go to when things got dry.  Abram was well aware of the danger of drought, but he also knew that his God was the Lord over the rain systems of the earth.  He trusted these gifts from God’s hands more than the safety of living in larger numbers near a constant water source.  He could trust God as he separated his family and servants from the sins and temptations of the city.   This was the faith that was growing in our hero.  Think of how he had changed from the man who fled to Egypt!   Abram showed his devotion and gratitude to God by building an altar of worship to him.

After Lot left, the LORD spoke with Abram once again:

 

 “‘Lift up your eyes from where you are and look north and south, east and west.  All the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring forever.  I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth, so that if anyone could count the dust, then your offspring could be counted.  Go, walk through the length and breadth of the land, for I am giving it to you’” (Gen. 13:14-17). 

 

The LORD was rewarding Abram’s faith with assurances of his promises. Abram was to go out and walk along the land, knowing it was truly set apart for him by God.  As a king surveys the realm of his kingdom, Abram walked his land and saw with his own eyes this good place that God was preparing for him.

When Abram was done with his tour, he and Sarah moved with all their servants, flocks and herds to a place with beautiful trees called Mamre.  It was in the region of Hebron. This area was not like the place where Lot chose to live, where rivers provided a constant flow of water.  It was not like Egypt, with the never ending Nile.  Hebron was an area that depended on rain for water.  The people who lived there were at greater risk for drought or famine.   There was no river to go to when things got dry.  Abram was well aware of the danger of drought, but he also knew that his God was the Lord over the rain systems of the earth.  He knew that he was safe in God’s hands.   This was the faith that was growing in our hero!  How different he was from the man who had fled to Egypt!   Abram showed his devotion and gratitude to God by building an altar of worship to him there.

 

Story 21: A Trip to Egypt: There and Back Again

Genesis 12:16-20

Abram had moved out in faith because of the promises of God. The LORD told him to leave his country and his father’s household and go to an entirely new land.  God was going to raise up so many descendants for him that they would become an entire nation.  That nation was to be a part of God’s plan to bring salvation to the entire world.  But Abram was not alone on his journey, and he was not the only one who had to show tremendous trust in what God said. His wife Sarai would have to faithfully move out into a world that was very different from her own as well. They would have to put their hope in God together, acting as obedient partners in God’s work, reflecting the image of God in their love and support for each other.

They made the long journey to the land of Canaan. They were nomads, living in tents that were easy to pick up and move. They herded their flocks and herds with them, careful to stop in places where there would be plenty of water to drink and grass for their animals to graze on. They stayed in the hill country that fringed around the land of Canaan, careful not to threaten the tribes and nations that already lived there. Along their dusty path, Abram built altars of grateful praise to his God. They were monuments to the LORD, and monuments to Abram’s faith. He did not fight, fret, or manipulate for the land. He did not try to invade them on his own. He stood in faith, believing he would receive it freely from the hand of God.

They had been living in Canaan for some time when a severe famine came. Any famine is a terrible thing, as it means that there is not enough food to go around. Perhaps the famine came because there hadn’t been enough rain for the crops of food. Or perhaps a disease had come to destroy the plants or animals of the region. Whatever caused it, it was dangerous. Many people could starve to death. Many others would grow weak and ill.

Can you imagine the sense of responsibility and fear that Abram felt? Here was his precious wife, his nephew, their servants, and all their animals, and all of them depended on the wisdom of his leadership to survive. Did he wake up in fear at night, imagining his beloved wife having to go without food? Did he picture his animals growing skinny and weak? The Bible doesn’t say exactly which horrors drove Abram to fear, but we do know that he was overcome by those fears.

Abram gathered up his tents and moved his family down to the land of Egypt. The mighty Nile River was there. When every other region went without water because the rains had stopped, Egypt could rely on the vast flow of water that constantly poured through the Nile’s riverbanks. Their farms crops and their animals were often healthy and strong in the worst of times. The Nile was so important to the Egyptians that they worshiped the river as a god. In many ways, Abram was doing the same thing. In his fear of famine, he did not trust God to provide for him in the land of promise. He left the place of God’s calling to go where there was help that he could see and understand. Faith is believing in what cannot be seen. Abram was not standing in faith.

As they traveled closer to Egypt, Abram began to worry about something else. His wife was radiantly beautiful. He knew that other men would desire her, and he knew how vicious they might become towards the man she was married to. He was afraid. Here was another chance to take his fears to God, to show his trust and faith in the LORD. Instead, he turned to Sarai and put the burden of his fears on her. He said, “‘I know what a beautiful woman you are. When the Egyptians see you, they will say, “This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me but will let you live. Say you are my sister, so that I will be treated well for your sake and my life will be spared because of you.’”

Sure enough, when they arrived in Egypt, the surpassing beauty of Sarai became known far and wide. Word spread as far as the high officials of the Pharaoh, the king of Egypt. They went to their king and told him that a great beauty had come to live among them. The Pharaoh sent for her. When he saw her, he agreed with the rumors…she was ravishing. And since everyone had been told that Sarai was without a husband, the Pharoah took her to live in his palace.

Meanwhile, Abram was treated very well for giving the king his sister. He received sheep, cattle, donkeys, camels, and human servants in gratitude for giving the Pharaoh such a lovely gift. What was Abram thinking? Sarai had become a part of the royal harem! The Pharaoh wanted to come to her as a man should only come to his wife!

Abram had put his wife at terrible risk. He had put God’s promises in danger, too. God said that He would make a great nation through Abram, but in God’s eyes, Abram and Sarai were one flesh. They were married, and the promise of the covenant was to come through their united flesh. It was meant to happen through the love they shared in their marriage. Sarai had a sacred role to play that was every bit as important as Abram’s! But now Sarai was at risk to have a child from a man that was not her husband.

Imagine how Sarai felt as she sat alone in the palace, waiting for the king to come. What was she going to do? Was she mad that Abram had forced her to protect him? Did she feel betrayed that he had not protected her as a husband should? And how was God going to come through?

The Lord is patient. As Abram struggled to become a man of faith, God would help him along the way, especially as he faltered and failed. God would not let Sarai be violated by the Pharaoh of this idolatrous nation. The covenant was unbreakable. God sent a serious disease to infect every member of Pharaoh’s house. Imagine the entire palace writhing in discomfort. They all wondered what they had done to deserve this plague.  Then Pharaoh discovered that the painful infliction had come because he had taken the wife of Abram.  So the Pharaoh called for him. He said:

“‘What have you done to me…Why didn’t you tell me she was your wife?   Why did you say, “She is my sister,” so that I took her to be my wife? Now then, here is your wife. Take her and go!’” (Gen. 12:18b-20)

Wow! Now Sarai was safe, but the wrath of the Pharaoh was against them…and he had every right to be angry! Abram took Sarah and everything they had and left Egypt. With all the riches given to him by the Pharaoh, Abram had become a very wealthy man. He had added great amounts of animals and silver and gold from the Pharaoh.

Story 178: The Last Supper: The Bread and the Cup

Matthew 28:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:17-20; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26

Last supper

The Passover Feast was a high and holy event for the Jewish people. It celebrated the memory of the great day of salvation in Jewish history. Fifteen hundred years before Jesus came to earth, God set His people free from the horrible oppression of the Egyptian Pharaoh.  He made Israel into a mighty nation under the leadership of Moses by establishing a covenant with them that honored His covenant with Abraham (See Genesis 12:1-4; Genesis 15).

By the time of Moses, Abraham’s descendants had grown to a multitude that was like the stars in the sky.  The time had come for them to introduce God’s high and holy Law to the world so that it would be blessed with a new understanding of God’s ways (See Exodus 19:1-9). The Lord gave them these Laws to show them how to live in a way that honored Him. He ordered a beautiful sacrificial system so that when they failed, they could bring their repentance to their Lord and cleanse themselves and their nation from sin. He ordered their society in a way that taught them to treat each other with dignity, compassion, and respect, and protected them from the shameful degradation and horrors of the nations around them. The abuses of power, the murderous sacrifice of children to idols, the rampant practices that spread diseases and disloyalty among marriages…these were to be cut off. The people of God were to bring the bright, ringing beauty of God’s goodness into the Land of Promise and live as a people set apart for holiness…an example and blessing to a cursed world…showing the way for another way to live.

As they honored the holy ways of the Most High God, they were meant to create a sacred space for God’s holy, intense presence to rest on earth in a special way. According to the Lord’s specific instructions, they built the golden ark of the covenant whose lid was the Mercy Seat, the footstool of God’s earthly throne. Their tabernacle in the desert and then their Temple in Jerusalem functioned as the great halls for God’s throne room. A massive, thick curtain of deepest blue was hung between the presence of God in the Holy of Holies and His people to protect them from the intensity of His holiness. While they were truly His treasured possession, but they were still marked and tainted by the filth of the Fall. The toxic power of sin utterly weakened their ability to bear the Presence of God, and God provided a gracious protection so that He could come near them.

As the people faced their sin, they brought sacrificial offerings to the priest in repentance. The priests of Israel took the animal sacrifices to the altar of God. God had ordained that the blood would be the cleansing agent that purified His sacred space from the toxic pollution of the people’s sin. The cost of sin is death…it is an inherent rejection of the life that God gives. This blood represented the true price for the failures of humanity. Day after day, week after week, the people brought their sacrifices to the priests as they constantly checked themselves against God’s high and holy Law. For every failure, for every transgression, there was a public declaration and confession through the sacrificial system. As the people learned to take an honest assessment of their great weakness and selfishness, they were learning how deep their sin truly was. As God’s Law taught them to hold up their bent souls against His straight, whole, righteousness and love, they eyes became able to see how to become more like Him in their day-to-day lives. They also saw how impossible it is for human beings to honor the beautiful goodness and perfection of the Most High God. As they followed God’s Law, the seriousness of their sin became more clear, the high holiness of God was revealed, and the tremendous goodness and grace in His desire to purify them became more apparent. The realities of eternity were being revealed in the life of the nation on earth.

The nation of Israel was called by God to purify itself so that it could act as a priestly nation to the world. Yet through all of the nation’s centuries, they proved to be a massive failure. They sinned against the Lord, they rejected His ways, and they waged ungodly wars. Their kings set up idols in rebellion against the One who put them on the throne and trusted in the power of other nations more than the power of God. They fell into horrific moral sin, offered their own children up as sacrifices to false gods, and forgot the ways of God’s compassion and justice. Ultimately, the nation split in two, and these were finally crushed and sent into exile.

This story is no mere myth…it is grounded in the reality of human history. The ten tribes of the North were attacked and decimated by the Assyrian Army. The two tribes of Israel in the South were taken into captivity by Babylon. They were the only ones who would ever return to the Promised Land, and it was their descendants who lived in the nation of Israel at the time of Jesus.

In the midst of the cataclysmic flaws of God’s holy nation, there were always a few among them that were faithful. There were always those who continued to offer themselves to God and seek His holy ways, coming to Him with their sacrifices and honoring him with their devotion and obedience. They were called the remnant, and their response of love to God was the same love that Jesus was requiring of His own disciples. The heart of God’s remnant has always been the same. Through the long years of Israel’s history, their sincere sacrifices of repentance pointed to the sacred, glorious, devastating sacrifice that Jesus was about to make. In their obedience to what God had revealed to them in their own time, they were looking forward to the hope of God’s mercy that would be fulfilled completely in Jesus. The salvation that belongs to us belonged to them as well.

It was no mistake that Jesus’ life would be offered up at the Passover Feast. His life was the outgrowth and the highest purpose of the nation that the Passover had established. The nation of Israel was created so that there would be a people on earth that was set aside to await the Messiah. There had to be some group that would be ready for when God Almighty sent the Cure in the form of His own Son.

Now Jesus had come, and He was making a New Covenant for a new era. His own blood would be the final sacrifice, the true sacrifice that all the other sacrifices pointed to as a symbol for the epic moment when the Son of God would break the power of sin and death. His victory was based on the power of His indestructible life, smashing all the requirements of the Law for everyone who believes in Him.

The rituals of the Passover celebration had been kept by the Jewish nation for 1500 years. The memory of God’s saving work was fresh on the minds of the entire nation as they gathered in Jerusalem. Every part of the Passover feast was a symbol of God’s faithfulness. Now, as Jesus and His disciples honored that tradition, Jesus gave them a new ritual. It was a new command from God. It was given to remember and worship Christ in the new era that He would bring through His sacrifice.

The old Law would no longer be in force. A new Law was coming in the power of the Holy Spirit, and it would be written on the hearts of everyone who had faith in Jesus. There were whispers of this in the Old Testament.

The prophet Jeremiah spoke of it:

 

“‘Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer will shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.’”

Jeremiah 31:31-33

Ezekiel declared it as well:

“For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. Then you will live in the land I gave your ancestors; you will be my people, and I will be your God.”

Ezekiel 36:24-28

The Spirit of Christ would be the seal of salvation for everyone who believed. The intensified presence of God on earth that hovered over the golden ark would now be found in every heart that had been purified by the blood of Jesus, the spotless Lamb of God. The Spirit would make every believing heart His home.

These were the grand and epic things that were going on in human history through the life of Jesus. And now He sat in the Upper Room with His remnant, the eleven faithful disciples who would carry on the message of this Good News in the decades after His ascension into Heaven.

As they sat around the table, Jesus took some bread, thanked His Father, and broke it. He passed it to His disciples and said, “‘This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.’”

Then the Lord took a cup of wine and gave thanks to God. He passed it to His disciples, saying, “‘This is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. Drink from it, all of you. Do this in remembrance of Me.’”

What a solemn, beautiful moment. What an elegant, quiet ritual for Jesus to give His followers to join in together as they remembered the work of their Savior.   Jesus was a King like no other. He was about to give His blood and His body for the salvation of everyone who belongs to His Kingdom. He was going to become the True Passover Lamb. This new ritual was to become a powerful symbol for the people of God’s Kingdom to remember His breathtaking, beautiful sacrifice for thousands of years.

The men who reclined with Jesus in the room that evening would be His heralds, declaring the victory He was about to win on the cross to the world. As they built His Church, they would remember this night. They would take these commands of Jesus and teach it to each new believer. Two thousand years later, the chain of their teaching has reached down to us. We still remember the sacrifice of our Savior together by sharing the bread and the wine. His presence is still with His Church in a special way as they honor his commands. Our sacred communion threads all the way back to the night before He died for us.

 

 

Story 157: Zaccheaus and the Glorious Indignity of Tree Climbing

Luke 19:1-10

Sycamore Gap on Hadrian's Wall

It was the time of the Passover Feast for the nation of Israel. Over two thousand years before, God had brought the Hebrew people out of their slavery to the Egyptian Pharaoh. The Pharaoh had been given chance after chance to set God’s people free, but he had refused. The Lord sent frogs and gnats and hail and boils, but still the Pharaoh’s heart was hard against the will of the King of Creation. And so God brought the final judgment… God declared that He would reclaim the life of every firstborn son in the nation of Egypt. It was life that God had given in the first place, gifts of deep joy to the citizens of the nation who were oppressing His own chosen people. In response to the Egyptian king’s continued refusal to let the Hebrew people go, the Lord would withdraw the life He had given to sustain their firstborn sons.

In many ways this was a great reversal. The Pharaoh had been taking the lives of the firstborn sons of Israel so that their population would stay small and under his control. The difference was that he had no right to take these lives. It was murder, pure and simple. But the Lord, the Author of Life and the King of Eternity, sits in a very different position than that of a human king. The way we respond to God is supposed to be very different from how we think about human rulers. If we truly believe that He is Lord, if we commit to trust in His Word, if we recognize that there is a Creator who is the definer of wisdom and truth, then the only right response is to respect His choices and honor Him with obedience.  As He wisely governs over kings and nations, He can see things that we cannot, and His choices are beyond our comprehension. Our role is to simply trust Him.

In many cultures of the world today, it is taught that the human mind is the highest form of intelligence in the universe.  It becomes our job to figure out God, to decide if He is right or wrong, and if  He doesn’t measure up to our standard, we are taught we are wrong to believe in Him. While it is true that God has made humans in His image and that we are responsible to use our minds to discern right from wrong, the way we understand this has to come from God.  There is only One True Lord.  Humanity is far too messy, far too captive to their own needs and the power of their culture to be the final arbitrators of absolute truth.  The only Being great enough for that role is God Himself.

As we look out at all the other options in the world, there are many things we can put our faith in.  We can trust in our own abilities, in other people, in wealth or power, in our leaders or our nation, or in any one of the many religions that claim they are showing the way.  Or we can pray and ask the true and living God to reveal Himself to us and show us how to follow Him.  The Bible is where He tells His side of the story for humanity.

One of God’s major movements in history to bring us salvation came when He set the Hebrew people free from slavery to the Egyptian Pharaoh.  The night that the Lord would claim the lives of the firstborn sons of Egypt, He told the Israelites to sacrifice a  lamb and share it as a meal with their families. They were to take the blood of the lambs and put it on the doorposts of their homes. This act of faith would tell the Lord to pass over their homes and keep them safe from judgment (see Exodus 12).

The judgment of God came on the nation of Egypt in that long, dark night, and all the firstborn sons lost their lives…including the son of Pharaoh, the future king. In his grief, the Pharaoh finally agreed to let God’s people go.

God told Moses that His people were to commemorate that remarkable release from bondage every year in the great Feast of Passover.  And they did.

Over 1,500 years later, Jesus was on His way to Jerusalem to celebrate that great Feast. Only this time, He would be the firstborn son who would bear the brunt of the judgment brought by the sin of humanity. He would be the Passover Lamb whose blood would bring protection from judgment for all who respond to God by faith. God had already planted deep in the heart of His people the images of and understanding of sin, judgment, and grace…images that would find their final resolution in the Person of Jesus Christ. The images that pointed to the coming of the Son of God were in their history…they were in their beloved symbols of faith and rituals and the pilgrimages that marked their calendar year.   Would the people of Jesus’ time have eyes to see what was unfolding before them?

As Jesus headed towards the celebration of the Passover in Jerusalem, He was flanked by crowds of people. When they passed through the city of Jericho, a 45-mile distance from Jerusalem, everyone must have stopped to see what all the ruckus was about. The rumors of Jesus’ coming had probably preceded Him for days. Everyone wanted a peek at the Miracle Worker who was turning the nation upside down.

One of the men of Jericho was named Zaccheaus.  Zaccheaus was a tax collector, which meant he was doubly despised by the Jewish people. He was a pawn in the hand of the Roman government, collecting taxes for them from his own countrymen. Not only that, but he overcharged his fellow Jews, collecting more than necessary to line his own pockets. Zaccheaus’ work was especially wicked because he was chief over the other tax collectors. He oversaw the corruption that put heavy burdens on the people. Jericho was a major city on a major road, and he could demand a heavy toll.

But Zaccheaus had heard things about Jesus that were curious. It was said that the tax collectors and sinners were flocking to Jesus, and that He wasn’t turning them away. What could it mean? Was there hope for Zaccheaus, in spite of all that he had done?

As the crowd moved down the road, Zaccheus, who was very short, realized he would never get a good look at Jesus unless he got himself to a higher place. So he ran ahead of the mob and found a sycamore tree. He scrambled up onto the branches just as Jesus was about to pass by. When the Lord got there, He looked up and said, “‘Zaccheaus, hurry up and come down, for today I must stay at your house.’”

Wow! Can you imagine? With all the people around Him, and with all that was going on, Jesus was compelled to stop.

Have you noticed how often Jesus was moved by boldness? Whether it was the crying out of Bartemeaus, the bleeding woman who reached out and touched His cloak, the centurion who trusted Jesus to heal from miles away…or Zaccheaus casting aside his dignity to climb a tree…Jesus seems to have been compelled by those acts which fell outside the norm, those moments where someone’s need and faith compelled them to move past their usual ways, often at the risk of looking foolish.

When Zaccheus heard the words of Christ, he wasted no time.   He clamored back down the tree and welcomed Christ to his home joyfully.

When the Jews saw who Jesus was going to spend the evening with, they all began to grumble. How quickly their mood changed from praise to complaint! They hated Zaccheaus! “ ‘He has gone to be the guest of a sinner,’” they said.

They could have asked Jesus why He was doing something that was so far from what their own religious convictions would tell them to do.  They could have waited to see what He was going to do.  But they didn’t.  Instead, they gossiped.

Jesus was not interested in obeying the crowds. He was loyal to the will of His Father, and God the Father knew a great work was happening in Zaccheaus’ heart.

Zaccheaus stood before Jesus and declared, “‘Look Lord! Here and now I give half my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anyone out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.’”

Wow! What a beautiful picture of true repentance. Zaccheaus had turned completely around.  Imagine it. He was going to give away half of everything he owned…that might include selling houses and farms and gold. Imagine the wonderful things he would do for the poor.  Imagine how it would change their lives!

It was not only the poor whose lives would change.  Anyone that had felt the bite of his corruption was going to be blessed now...four times over.  This is the beauty of salvation at work.  This was the repentance Christ had been looking for as He traveled around the nation of Israel.  Zaccheaus’ heart was transformed by the Good News.

Jesus declared to Zaccheaus and the crowd, “‘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 save the lost.’”

Wow.  It might be easy to miss the power of what Jesus was saying here.  The Jewish people were very proud to be the descendants of Abraham, and rightly so.  It meant they were a part of God’s chosen people. This is the greatest honor that has ever been bestowed upon a nation.  But they did not consider tax collectors a part of their family. Zaccheaus showed by his repentant faith in Jesus that he truly was a member of Abraham’s family. And Jesus showed the Jews in a bright and beautiful way that God has a wealth of compassion and grace for all who believe.

You will notice that Zaccheaus did not tell Jesus, “I believe, but I’m not going to change anything. I’ll just keep right on robbing the people and living in sin.” When we come to the Lord, we need to come with humility and repentance.

Imagine how the world changes when we do that. Imagine how it blessed the poor and the people that Zacchaeus had once overcharged? They could pay their debts, feed their children, take care of their homes. They didn’t have to live in fear of the new tax season. The men that worked under Zaccheaus would learn to do their work without corruption. All that had been crooked and deceitful, the sin that caused so much damage, would become untwisted and straight. Greater peace would be brought to the people of Jericho and everyone that passed through.

This is one of the powerful ways that the Kingdom of God is established on earth.

It is easy to think of Jesus as serious and intense…because He often was. But imagine His joy at the party as they celebrated the change in the life of Zaccheaus.   In just a few days, Jesus would be heading for the cross, yet He took the time to celebrate this one transformed life.

In Hebrews 12:2, the Bible says that Jesus endured the cross and despised its shame because of the joy set before Him. On the other side of the cross, Jesus would be raised up to sit at the right hand of the Father, on the Throne of Heaven. And because of His sacrifice, people like Zaccheaus and you and me will be able to join Him there.  Our salvation was part of the joy that was set before Him.

Was the incredible gift He was about to win for Zaccheaus on His mind as they celebrated? Was the beauty of Zaccheaus’ transformation a comfort to Jesus…a reminder of the beauty of what He was about to do?

Story 18: God Mourns Our Griefs Ahead of Us: The Mothers of Bethlehem

Matthew 2:13-23

A flight back to Egypt, the place of captivity, to escape the violence of a threatened king. The story unfolds for Mary and Joseph with crazy turns, but each one marks the way through the perfect, prophetic plans of God

Imagine it.  One evening you are at home with your family and there is a knock at the door.  When you open it, there are many strangers standing there.  They are not only strange because you have never met them before, but because they look different than anyone you have ever seen.  They are obviously foreigners from a far-off land.  Their clothes, their accents, even the way they carry themselves makes it clear that they are from a very different world.  And yet they enter your home bearing expensive gifts, and when they see your two-year-old, they bow down and start to worship Him.

This is something like what happened to Joseph and Mary when the Magi and their caravan showed up at their doorstep with offerings of gold and the richest of spices. The amazing things that God had revealed to them about their Son through angels and dreams and shepherds were now being revealed to strange but dignified men thousands of miles away! How oddly wonderful it must have been to see them bow down before their little boy and worship Him as King!

Was it odd for the wise men as well?  When they arrived in Israel, they went to the king’s palace.  That was the natural thing to expect.  Yet when the star revealed the right place to go, it was over the home of a peasant…a carpenter…six miles from the capitol.  The remarkable celestial sign trumped all of their earthly expectations, and so these foreigners, these Gentiles, were invited into the rightful honoring of the Son of God when He came.

After the Magi left, an angel of the Lord came to Joseph in a dream.   He said, “‘Get up! Take the child and His mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.’”

The carpenter and his wife were swept up in the power struggle of the pretender king in Israel against the Most High King of Heaven!  How odd it must have been for Joseph to find himself fleeing with his family to Egypt.  It was the land the people of Israel had once been so eager to escape.  Now the bearers of God’s Salvation had to return to Egypt to find protection from Israel’s king.

Joseph obeyed the angel immediately. He got up in the night, woke Mary, and took the family on the long journey to the land that had once held God’s people captive.

When Herod found out that the Magi had tricked him, he went into a terrible rage. They hadn’t told him who the Christ Child was, and they were the only ones that knew how to find Him! So he ordered his soldiers to a terrible task. They were to go to the town of Bethlehem and the area all around it and kill all the baby boys under the age of two. The star had appeared two years before to the Magi, so they believed it was the age of the child.

Imagine that terrible day as the soldiers rode through Bethlehem, pounding on doors and demanding that the families hand over their beloved sons. Imagine the grief and shock of the mothers and the powerless rage of the fathers. The sin of Herod’s insane jealousy viciously ravaged the innocent, and the evil of the kingdom of darkness prevailed. There seems to have been no action by the Jewish religious leaders to stop this attempt to murder the promised Messiah or protect the innocent baby boys of Bethlehem.

Trost

Matthew tells us that this horrible act fulfilled a warning that God had given through the prophet Jeremiah:

“‘A voice will be heard in Ramah,

weeping and great mourning,

Rachel weeping for her children,

and refusing to be comforted,

because they are no more.’”

Jeremiah 31:15

Rachel was the wife of Jacob, the great Jewish patriarch. When she died, Jacob’s family was traveling, so she was buried along the way. It was at the place that would later become the town of Bethlehem. Now the mothers of Bethlehem would lose their sons because of Herod’s fury. In this beautiful, sorrowful, prophecy, Jeremiah expressed their terrible grief by speaking of the tears of Rachel. God knew about their pain five hundred years before it happened, and grieved for them over the ravages of this dark world through His prophet. What a beautiful Lord!

But God would not let the story end with grief! Jeremiah’s prophecies told of the ravages of evil on earth, but they also pointed to a brilliant future hope. The One that Herod sought to kill would one day destroy all evil. He will destroy death itself! And one day, there will be no more tears in Bethlehem. There will only be joy and life and peace.

As the horror of the curse and the power of sinful men tore apart the families of Bethlehem, Joseph and Mary escaped to Egypt with the Son of God. They made a life there, far from the clutches of the pretender king. How odd and adventurous and frightening their story must have seemed to them as they were caught up in the middle of it.  Their lives were so different from everyone they had grown up with, so far afield from what was normal.  Yet their willingness to radically trust God allowed God to use them to fulfill His prophetic purposes in the world.

When King Herod died, the angel of the Lord came to Joseph in a dream once again. He said, “‘Get up, take the Child and His mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the Child’s life are dead.’”

Once again, Joseph obeyed His Lord immediately. He got up and took his family back to the land of his people. Luke was careful to record how these events fulfilled prophecy that God had given hundreds of years before about the coming Messiah.

When Joseph learned that Archelaus, the son of Herod, was ruling over Judea, he was afraid to return to Bethlehem. Another dream came to warn him, so he took the child and Mary up to Galilee, far from the clutches of Herod’s domination. They lived in the town of Nazareth. The Lord Jesus grew up there and became strong and wise, and God’s grace was with Him.

It is interesting to look at how Matthew weaved the prophecies of the Old Testament into the story of this young family. In one place the Bible seemed to say that Messiah would come from Bethlehem:

Micah 5:2

“But you Bethlehem…

though you are small among the clans of Judah,

out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old,

from ancient times.”

In another, he was to come out of Egypt:

Hosea 11:1

“…out of Egypt I called my son.”

In another he was called a Nazarene:

Isaiah 11:1

“A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;

from His roots a Branch will bear fruit”

[“Branch” in Hebrew is nezer, which is also the root word for Nazareth.]

For generations, faithful Jewish people read those prophecies with great confusion. How could they all be true about one person? But the problem that had once been so confusing became the proof that made everything clear. Amazingly, all three of those prophecies were fulfilled through the strange and perilous beginnings of the life of the Messiah! Jesus really was the One that the Magi and angels and shepherds declared Him to be.  Simeon and Anna, his parents and his aunt and uncle were right! The glorious One foretold by the prophets had come!

It is interesting to learn what happened to Herod. In his last couple of years, the pretender king who reigned over the City of David only grew more horrific in his malice. But he was not allowed to carry out his selfish rule for long. He came down with a terrible disease. As his death drew near, he displayed the full measure of his evil heart. He ordered that when he died, his soldiers were to go kill a member of every family in Israel so that the entire nation would enter a time of true mourning. It is interesting that he knew they would not truly mourn his own death. In the end, Herod’s outrageous orders were ignored. For the rest of human history, Herod has been remembered only for his viciousness and, like a lunatic shouting against the rising of the morning sun, his failed attempts to destroy the plans of God.

 

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