Tag: Israel

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 35: Hagar’s Tears

Genesis 21:8-21

Years of joy went by for Abraham and Sarah.  Isaac learned to crawl and toddle around on his little feet.  When he was two or three, they weaned him from his mother.  To celebrate, Abraham threw a great feast.

At the banquet, Sarah watched on as Ishmael made fun of her beloved son with contempt.  This was no innocent play.  Sarah could hear malice in Ishmael’s voice, and she was overcome with fear.   It seemed to reveal his desire to dominate and demean her boy…he was a real threat to her child.

This was not just about the normal conflicts that arise between brothers.  This was about the status of these boys and their future.  Ismael was showing contempt for the true heir of Abraham.

She was filled with anger.  How dare he treat her child this way?   The same disrespect that Hagar had shown Sarah was now showing up in her son.

Did Sarah consider the pain of Hagar…to be the unwed mother of Abraham’s first born?  Did the vulnerability of Ishmael occur to her…now that this new son had come along?  Did she see what this situation…a situation of her own making…was doing to others who had so little power?

Sarah went to Abraham and said, “‘Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.’”

Sarah wasn’t merely asking for Hagar and her son to be sent away.  In order to do so, they would have to relinquish their service.   As long as they stayed with Abraham’s household, the boy would have the right to claim inheritance from his father.   Abraham had raised Ishmael and made it clear that this was his son.  But if Hagar and Ishmael were freed, they would never be able to claim Abraham’s wealth against Isaac. Sarah was asking Abraham to grant them their freedom, but it was for her own selfish gain.

Rather than trust the Lord to bring about his promise…to raise up her son as the heir to God’s covenant with Abraham…Sarah panicked and acted out of fear and spite.

Imagine the despair of Abraham.  He loved his first born son.  They had spent thirteen years living among the their tents together.  How could he thrust them out into the desert alone?  Years ago Abraham and Sarah lacked the faith to believe that God would provide a child through Sarah.  Now Hagar and Ishmael would have to go through a terrible trial for their mistake.  Abraham took his deep grief to the LORD.

God came to his faithful servant as he agonized into the night.  He said, “‘Do not be so distressed about the boy and your maidservant.  Listen to whatever Sarah tells you, because it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.’”

These words reveal something interesting about the thoughts of God.  When God called Abraham, the call was not on Abraham alone.  The call was on his wife as well.  As husband and wife, they were one.  Sarah was an important part of God’s plan, and no other woman could stand in her place.  It was her child that would become the nation of God’s great promise to the world.  Her role as mother had tremendous value in the eyes of God…she was as irreplaceable as Abraham to God’s plan.  God told Abraham to honor her words in spite of the fact that they were marked by her brokenness and sin.

Then God spoke to Abraham about Ishmael and Hagar, “‘I will make the son of the maidservant into a nation also, because he is your offspring.’”

Wow.  That was a tremendous promise!  The Lord reigns in power over all, and he cared for Hagar, too.  He had made a promise to Abraham about his descendents, and it would be true for both his sons.  Ishmael’s descendents would grow into a mighty nation just as surely as Isaac’s would.  Abraham could trust that God would watch over and protect Hagar and Ishmael just as he had watched over Abraham for twenty five years.  They had a great hope that was grounded in the character of God…a great future lay before them.

Abraham listened to his LORD and trusted him to keep his promise.  He obeyed immediately.  Early the very next morning, Abraham brought Hagar and Ishmael out of their tents.  He loaded Hagar’s shoulders with food and water and sent them on their way.  Imagine the tearing on Abraham’s heart as he watched the two, small figures walking off into the vast wilderness.  A woman alone with her teenage son in a wild land of tribal nations who often lived in unspeakable sin.  Imagine his faith as he prayed for them and trusted them in the hands of God.  Imagine Ishmael’s confusion as his loving father sent him away with such sadness.  Why did he have to go?  Imagine Hagar’s fear as she stepped out onto the lonely sands.

She had nothing, but she brought with her the responsibility of a child.  Had she asked for this?

Hagar wandered out into the desert of Beersheba on her way back to Egypt, the land of her birth.  Along the way, she got lost.  She spent days moving in the wrong directions, not knowing how to find her way home.  She had been given plenty of food and water for the trip, but as the time stretched on, they began to run out.

How thirsty they became, and how her son suffered.  The days were long and the nights were cold, and there was no help.  Her son became weaker and weaker.   They weren’t able to go on.  Finally she set him under a bush. She walked away and sat down.  She was far enough away to so that she would not have to watch him die, but near enough to protect him and come to his body once he was gone.  Her heart tore in two with grief and despair.  Her body shook with the sobs of her overwhelming loss and sorrow.  And Ishmael lay there, near death, crying out to the God of his father.

God heard Ishmael’s cries.  The angel of the Lord came from Heaven.  The Lord heard, and he came.  He came to Hagar in the wilderness and spoke tenderly to her; “‘What is the matter, Hagar?  Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there.  Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation.’  Then the LORD opened her eyes and she saw a well of water.  So she went and filled the skin with water and gave it to her boy to drink” (Genesis 21:17-19).

This wasn’t the first time the angel of the Lord had come to Hagar.  She had run away once before when Sarah’s treatment had grown so cruel she could no longer bear it.  She called out to the Lord, then, too.  After he came, she declared him to be “the One who sees me…” Utterly alone in the desert, a rejected servant sitting by a stream of water, she was seen by the God of the universe.

Now he had come again, and revealed a well of water that she could not find on her own.

The arrogance of Ishmael and the fearful selfishness of Sarah had caused this dark time for him and his mother, but his cry to God brought their salvation.  Once again, God came gently down to Hagar with great promises.

The LORD watched over Ishmael as he grew.  And God kept his promise to Abraham.  Hagar raised him in the desert and he learned to become a skilled archer.  And eventually, she found him a wife from the land of Egypt.

 

Story 34: Sarah’s Laughter

Genesis 21-22

Abraham and Sarah had waited on the LORD for twenty-five years.   All during those years, Abraham believed in a message he had heard from God.  This was not just any deity or idol, it was the God of the universe…and the promise of the message was great.  So they packed up everything and journeyed out into the wilderness.  They wandered as nomads to strange lands with foreign people.Their former life of refined wealth was over.  They would no longer have solid walls around them and a door to lock.  They would roam around with tents.  The floor would be the earthy ground, and their walls would be made of leather or cloth…too thin to keep out the dust and cold.  There would be a constant need to search for sources of water, and because water was precious, others would want to take it from them.

As they traveled, Abraham’s family would have been an easy targets for bandits.  Other nomadic people would have felt threatened by them.  It would have been hard…if not foolish…to trust anyone along the way.  The new cities and nations around them were often places of violence and corruption.  The kings and rulers would have threatened their family, and the foolishness of Lot would drag Abraham and Sarah into even bigger problems.  Through it all, Abraham was imperfect yet faithful, constantly depending on the LORD and leading his wife and their household on into God’s promises.

Along the way, God counted Abraham’s faith as righteousness.  He blessed Abraham with great flocks and military victory and vast wealth.  Yet those were not the limit to the dreams that God had put before Abraham and Sarah.  His vision was much greater!  God had promised them a nation.  But that nation would have to come from the birth of a son, and that was the great blessing they had yet to receive.

Month after month, Sarah would hope that the time had come for a child, and month after month, he did not come.  Imagine the pain and confusion they must have felt.  They had believed God’s promises and they had obeyed, and yet God had deprived them of life’s most basic and natural blessing.

It is stunning to consider how God formed his wide, epic plan of salvation for the human race in a way that would be so profoundly personal for this couple.  He designed the story of the covenant family to be birthed out of the kind of faith that is forged out of long waiting…over time…as a continual and deepening re-decision.  God’s salvation plan did not bypass the hearts of those He came to save by bringing in some outside, alternate route…it was forged through the depths of their very hearts.

Finally there came a time when it became humanly impossible for Sarah to have children at all.  Yet God was firm.  He insisted that they stand in faith.  They had to believe in an answer that they could not imagine.  They had to hope for something they could not see.

Abraham did not allow the pain and wear of the passing of time to destroy his faith.   Instead, he was strengthened in his faith and grew in his confidence that God richly rewards those who believe in His promises (see Romans 4).

And then…the time finally came.  Abraham was a hundred years old, and Sarah was ninety.  By this time, the entire region knew this couple.  Abraham was extravagantly wealthy and a famous warrior.  He was a foreigner who had come and saved five nations from the tyranny of their enemies.

The people of the region must have wondered at Abraham’s devotion to his barren wife.  Why didn’t he take another wife?  He was a wealthy man, why didn’t he build a harem for himself?  He could have had a dozen wives and a hundred children!  All the world watched, and all knew without a doubt that it was too late for Sarah.  At just the point where everyone would be sure it was a miracle, God gave His greatest blessing of all:

“‘Now the LORD was gracious to Sarah as He had said, and the LORD did for Sarah what He had promised.  Sarah became pregnant and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the very time God has promised him.  Abraham gave the name Isaac to the son Sarah bore him.  When his son Isaac was eight days old, Abraham circumcised him, as God commanded him.  Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him.’”

Genesis 21:1-5

Wow.  Imagine the joy of Abraham and Sarah as they held that little baby!  Imagine the wonder!  Those tiny feet and that perfect, soft skin was all their very own.  Has a couple ever waited longer for a child?  Each year of waiting intensified their desire for this little one.  How deeply they understood what a precious gift, what an absolute miracle, this boy was.  He was from the very hands of the Lord.

The first thing we learn about the child is how Abraham dedicated him back to God.  He circumcised his boy with his old and aged hands, delighting in this little baby who would one day be the father of nations.  If God could provide this child, the rest of the promises were also sure.

The utter happiness of the couple showed on their faces.  How they laughed now!  How different the world felt now that the promise was in their arms.  They named the boy Isaac, which means “he laughs.”  For Sarah said, “‘God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me…who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children?  Yet I have born him a son in his old age’” (Genesis 21:6-7).

 

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 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 17: The Blessed Line of Shem

Genesis 10

Shem was the son of Noah’s greatest blessings.  His children and their descendants were chosen by God in a special way.  He had five sons whose families grew to become great nations.  Their names were Elam, Asshur, Arphaxad, Lud, and Aram.  From them more sons were born.  The Bible lists twenty-six nations that came through his line.  Each would have their own language and their own territory, their own cities, and their own cultures.  For example, the sons of Elam settled in what would now be Southern Iran.  Aram’s clan was probably somewhere near where Syria is now.

Shem’ son Eber had a son named Peleg.  The Bible points this out especially because it was through Peleg’s line that God would one day bring a man into the world named Abram.  God would rename him Abraham, and he would be the father of God’s chosen, priestly nation.  An Israelite would read this and know with pride that these were the men of his ancestry, the noble ones with a sacred blessing from Noah, the father of all humanity, and the favored ones of God.

Altogether, the Bible lists seventy different nations that are the fruit of the marriage of Noah and his wife.  If we looked at the nations that rise from Japheth, Shem, and Ham, it would seem that the most powerful and successful came from the line of Ham.  Nimrod was the great builder of the early cities.  His empires were the most powerful and wealthy in the world.  During Nimrod’s lifetime, it probably seemed the ways of evil and cruel men would have total victory.

It is interesting for us to look back now, thousands of years later, at what God has done.  The empires of Assyria and Babylon rose and fell.  Their bright, cruel lights went out over 2,500 years ago, and they have never been heard from since.  Nobody alive today can be sure if their ancestors are from Babylon or if they came from the line of Ham.  That has been lost and forgotten.

But there is an ancient nation that still stands.  Israel and its people are alive and well in the land that God promised them. They can still trace their ancestry back to Abram and even further back to Shem, the blessed son of Noah.  The Lord of all Creation taught the people of the world how to seek Him and find Him through them, the Jewish people.  And through the Jewish people, God would send the Savior of the world in Jesus Christ.  All of us who believe in Jesus are a part of God’s blessing on Shem.  While few remember the name of Nimrod or think about long dead nations called Assyria and Babylon, the name of Jesus Christ is proclaimed all over the world every day by those who are totally devoted to Him.  And that has been the case for over two thousand years.  When we see the evil nations and tyrants of the world today, we must remember that while the forces of evil may seem strong and powerful, God is constantly at work, preparing the way and raising up His own people to transform the world.  In the end, He wins.  And the amazing thing is we get to join Him and be a part of His great and mighty victories.

Seventy nations are listed in the Table of Nations.  That number is important. In the Bible, the number ten is a symbol that something is whole and complete.  The number seven is a special, sacred number that is a sign of divine completion.  So when seven and ten are multiplied to make the number seventy, it is a signal to the reader of the Bible that this was something perfected, complete, and divinely whole.  It bears the special marks of God’s sovereign plan.  Whether the people of the world followed the Lord like the descendants of Shem or whether they rebelled like the descendants of Ham, they were all still moving forward into history according to God’s will.  The Lord has a plan, and He is completely able to accomplish it in His exact time and way.  The descendants of Noah scattered out, filling the map of the earth, just as the Lord had said.  Each nation was given its time and place by God.  He is Lord of all.

It isn’t understood why they moved so far away from each other.  Was it because of their faithful obedience to the Lord, or was there something else at work?  And where did they all learn to speak different languages?

Story 16: The Table of Nations: Japheth and the Unspoken One

Genesis 10

The chapter of Genesis that comes after the flood is fascinating.  It is called the Table of Nations.  It tells of the people on earth that came from Noah’s three sons.  It starts out like this:

 

“‘The sons of Japheth:

Gomer, Magog, Madai, Javan, Tubal, Meshach, and Tiras.’”

 

The Bible goes on to list who all of their sons were.  Then it moves to the descendants of Ham.  They were:

 

“‘Cush, Mizraim, Put, and Canaan’”

 

Once again, it goes on to list their sons as well.  Finally, the Table of Nations tells about Shem.  His sons were Elam, Asshur, Arphaxad, Lud, and Aram.

Over hundreds of years, the children of Japheth, Ham, and Shem filled the earth with great nations.  They spoke many different languages and had very different cultures.  They each moved to different regions of the world and had territories of their own.

This was all very important for the Bible to teach.  It shows the link of all the people of the earth back to Noah and Noah’s God.  Every single clan and nation on earth started out knowing the goodness of the Lord of all Creation.  Any group that does not worship Him and love Him had to rebel and walk away at some point in their history.  Everyone on the planet has an ancestor that started out knowing the living God.

The Table of Nations also shows how every nation on the planet took part in God’s great blessings.  Because of God’s goodness, they were fruitful, and their children multiplied.  Even as they rebelled, He continued to show them grace by giving them the chief joys of life.  He cared deeply for them, preparing their lands and their languages, their blessings and even their curses far in advance.

There was another important reason for the Bible to have the Table of Nations.  Into this great mass of different nations and people groups, God was going to insert a very special nation that would serve them all.  He wanted to create a nation that would be set apart to specialize in the high and holy ways of the Lord.

This nation would be the nation of Israel.  They would be a nation of priests whose whole way of life and culture would be crafted around the commands of God.  The Lord’s holy presence would be with them in a very sacred, special way.  These people were meant to spend their whole lives learning and pursuing God and being near to Him. They would be transformed into a higher goodness than ever seen before in this cursed world.  They would be the model to other nations, showing how the human race was meant to relate to their Creator.

God would reveal Himself to them in special ways.   Humanity could not return to the Garden to walk with God in the cool of the day.  But the nation of Israel was to build a holy Temple in their most sacred city, and it would be like the throne of God on earth.  His intense, holy presence would honor them above all the other nations of the earth.

God would also reveal Himself to the nation of Israel through Holy Scripture.  They would write down His words through stories and prophecies and poems and sacred legal codes.  The people of this nation could draw near to God by studying His Word.   It would make a way for the fallen human race to learn about the Most High God, His righteousness, and His plans for history.   (When you read the book of Genesis, you read an important part of that blessing!)

The nation of Israel did not exist at the time of the Table of Nations.  But the Table prepares the reader  to be ready for the day when God would move in history to create His nation of priests.

As the reader looks at all of the names on the Table of Nations, each with thousands upon thousands of human souls, a problem arises.  How was God working to help free the wicked on earth from their entanglement with sin?  How was He going to stop the terrible curse?  He promised He wouldn’t send another flood, so what was His plan?  The nation of Israel was the answer.  They were meant to be a priestly blessing to all the nations that are on the Table.

The Table of Nations was written to show the people of the world where they belonged in the history of God’s work in humanity all the way back to the Flood.  But it was especially written to teach the nation of Israel its special place of blessing, leading all the way back to Noah.  They would be called out as a nation from the line of Shem, and the blessing of Shem was upon them.

The Table of Nations first tells us about the sons of Japheth.  He had seven!  Fourteen nations or language groups would come from Japheth’s marriage.  The clans of these different language groups ended up being the people who settled in a land called Anatolia, or modern day Turkey.

Then the Bible tells us about the children of two of them: Gomer and Javan.  Javan had a son named Rodanim, and his descendants were people of the sea.  They built boats and navigating the waters of the glistening Mediterranean.  Their ships took them farther and farther away as they settled new territories across the sea.  We believe his son named Elishu settled on the island of Cyprus.  Rodanim probably settled on the island of Rhodes.

The Table of Nations tells us how the human race grew and spread across the earth after Noah and the flood.  After telling about Noah’s son Japheth, the Bible teaches about Ham’s sons.  Remember, Ham was a man who rejected the ways of his godly father.  His heart was bent towards rebellion and sin.  The ways he chose were the ways of Satan.  Because of his wicked behavior, Ham and his descendants were under Noah’s curse.  The curse of their sin would show its spreading poison over time.  From Ham’s descendants the Bible lists thirty nations or language groups.

Ham’s sons were named Cush, Mizraim, and Canaan.  Cush was the father of a man named Nimrod.  He was brilliantly famous as a great and mighty warrior.  He was the founder of the great cities of the ancient world.  Together they made up Nimrod’s mighty empire.  Yet Nimrod was cut from the same sinful cloth as Cain and Lamech and Ham.  His name means, “we shall rebel.”  He built his empire on force and violence and his own will to power.  It spread across whole regions, eating up the land and everyone in it.

It was Nimrod who first built the cities of Babylon and Nineveh.  They would one day become the empires of Babylon and Assyria, and they would follow in Nimrod’s footsteps.  One of the reasons Nimrod’s story is told in the Bible is because both of these nations would become great oppressors of God’s holy people,the nation of Israel.  Assyria would one day destroy a whole section of God’s holy nation, the Northern Kingdom, forcing the people into captivity and slavery.  Babylon would do the same to the Southern Kingdom.  It would only be after Babylon was conquered by another nation that the Israelite people would be allowed to return to their land.  The Bible taught that these cruel nations came from the line of Ham, a people whose father chose wickedness over the ways of God.

Mizraim would be the father of those who lived in the region that became Egypt.  It would become a place of great idolatry.  They would worship everything from the sun to the Nile River to their very own Pharaoh!  Egypt, too, would become a great oppressor of God’s holy people, the nation of Israel.  But God would do a mighty work to free his people from their tyrannical king.

Another group that came from the line of Mizraim was the Philistines.  These  people would come across the sea to Israel to attack them and take their land.  In the famous story when David fights against Goliath, it was to defeat the Philistine army.

Ham’s son Canaan would settle in the land that God would promise to Israel.  They would become the great enemies of God’s holy people.  They would live in the land for hundreds of years in horrific rebellion, idolatry, and moral filth against the Lord.  Sodom and Gomorrah were in the land of Canaan, and their sin was so violently wicked that God would utterly wipe them out.  But it wasn’t just Sodom and Gomorrah.  The whole land would become contaminated with the toxic pollution of sin, so much so that the Bible says the land would end up vomiting them out in disgust!  That was a poetic way to say that God would use the nation of Israel to judge them for their sin and remove them from the land.

The Table of Nations teaches many things.  As an Israelite read through the list of Ham’s descendants, it would have been like reading through the record of all their nation’s greatest enemies.  The line of Ham produced the great violators of God’s way.  They were idol worshipers who forcefully imposed their immorality on the other nations of the world.  They did not simply wish to live in their own private sins, they pushed and forced their wickedness and idolatry on others, enslaving them and brutally punishing those who did not join them.

These stories tell us about things that happened in ancient history.  But part of the reason God put them in the Bible is because they teach us why the world is the way it is now.  The reason we have sin and suffering and shame now are the same reasons there was sin and suffering and shame in the past.  Our situation on planet earth now comes from what happened in the past.  Through these stories, God is teaching us how to understand our world.  The violence and brokenness and lack of love in this world started with separation from God in the Garden.  As whole sections of the human race rejected the perfect, holy ways of the LORD, they brought greater and greater wickedness and pollution of sin onto the earth.  Everyone bears the pain of this.  Every life is marked with hardship.  And right now many, many people across the world live in terrible conditions of loss, hunger, and degradation because of the systems of wickedness and oppression that are set in their governments and their cultures.

This is important for us to understand because it is God’s truth.  It is also important for us to understand because if we wish to be a part of God’s bright, holy transforming work of good against the powers of evil, we have to understand why the evil is there.  We have to know the enemy of God’s perfect goodness so that we can join the LORD and His holy angels in the battle against him.

The wicked nations and cultures that rose up from the line of Cain did exactly the opposite of what God created the nation of Israel to do.  Israel would be His nation of priests, and God would use them to bring His bright and holy presence into the midst of a dark and cursed world.  This nation would come from Noah’s son Shem, or the Semite people.

Story 190: The Way of the Cross

Matthew 27:27-32; Mark 15:16-21; Luke 23:24-31; John 19:16

The Flagellation of Christ (stained glass)

The sentence against Jesus was pronounced by Pilate. His soldiers led Jesus into the Praetorium. They called the whole Roman battalion of soldiers to the courtyard. There were over a hundred men gathered around the Lord, ready to use Him for sport to relieve their boredom. They stripped Him of His clothes and put a purple robe on Him. They put the crown of thorns back on His head and shoved a reed into His right hand to act as a scepter.

Doesn’t it seem strange that they would choose to mock Christ in this way? Isn’t it ironic?

Can you imagine what it might have been like for the angels, watching the One who, for all eternity past, sat on the Throne of Heaven, at the right had of the Father…the One who they had worshiped in His blazing glory, honor and power. What was the angelic scene on Heaven and earth as they saw Him subjected to this humiliation, this nakedness, this shame?

It must have been awful, and yet what else could so fully display the profound, stunning goodness of their God? That He would endure such agony for those who are so undeserving…that He would set aside His glory for the sake of the ones who would beat and kill Him? It is a story that has captured the attention of humanity for 2,000 years…and thankfully for us, it is the myth that turned out to be true.

As the soldiers continued to harass the Lord, they began to cry, “‘Hail, King of the Jews!’” and bow down to Him in mock reverence. Then they began beating His head with the reed and spitting on Him.

Through it all, Jesus said nothing. Though He could call those angels to His aid in a moment, though by His own power He could destroy them with a Word, He stood there in absolute surrender and obedience to the will of His Father.

It was a magnificent strength, a glorious meekness. His devotion was to the High King of Heaven, and He knew that His Father was watching it all. He understood the victory that awaited Him on the other side, and He scorned the shame of all that was to follow for the sake doing His Father’s will (see Heb. 12:1-3).

When the soldiers were done mocking Jesus, they took off the purple robe and put His clothes back on Him. They lay the beam of His cross on His back and led Him out through Jerusalem on the path to His crucifixion. Meanwhile, the whole city of Jerusalem had learned about what was going on, and crowds had filled the streets.

As Jesus went along the path, the weight of the wooden beam became too much for Him. His body was in a terribly weakened state, and He fell. The soldiers took hold of a passer-by named Simon of Cyrene. He had come into Jerusalem from the country for the Passover celebration. He had no idea what God had in store for him. The soldiers pressured him into carrying the cross for Jesus. As Jesus walked on, Simon carried the heavy wooden beams, and the great multitudes followed behind.

The nation had been holding its breath to find out if this Jesus was the Messiah. The tension had been building for three years. The clashes between this radical, miracle-working teacher and the established religious leaders had only intensified with time. As Jesus made His way through Jerusalem, the rumors flew.

Everyone expected things to come to a head at the Passover Feast, but nobody expected this. How could this be? The Messiah was supposed to come in power! He was meant to rule with an iron scepter! He was supposed to conquer the nations!

Stories of the midnight trial in secret, the savage beatings, the trip to the palace of Herod, and the trial before Pilate were circulating like mad. As Jesus progressed through the city, everything came to a standstill. The noise of the morbid parade could be heard throughout Jerusalem.   The crowds came to catch a glimpse of the famous young teacher who was about to be crucified. How weak and bloodied He was! He couldn’t even carry His own cross!  Was this really the end? His teachings were so beautiful, so straight and right. For many, it must have seemed as if goodness itself was dying.

How many of them had been healed by Jesus?

How many of them had walked mile upon mile to listen to Jesus…and now watched in horror at the outcome of His life?

The humiliation of Christ had come on the one day in the year when the highest number of Jews would be in Jerusalem. It was the day of the Feast when the Passover lamb was sacrificed, but this day would also see the sacrifice of the Lamb of God. The Passover lamb had been an image or a shadow of what Christ had come to do. It had been a ritual and a symbol for the nation of Israel for thousands of years. Would they recognize that the True Lamb had come?

The people who flocked to Jerusalem would all witness the sin that their nation, the one that had been chosen by God to be a blessing to all the other nations of the world, would commit against their own Messiah.

Some of the women who loved Jesus followed along behind Him, lamenting and weeping over the suffering of their Lord. Jesus turned to speak with His faithful ones:

“‘Daughters of Jerusalem,’” He said, “‘Do not weep for Me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For behold, the days are coming when they will say, “Blessed are the barren wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!” Then they will begin to say to the mountains, “Fall on us,” and the hills, “Cover us.” For if they do these things when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry.’”

Luke 23:28-31

For you see, Jesus knew that the time was coming when Jerusalem would receive the consequences for this rejection of the Savior. That very morning, the high priests had declared their loyalty to the Roman Caesar, and the people had cried out that the blood of Jesus would be on their own heads and on the heads of their children. In times to come, God would let them have their way.

Within the lifetime of the crowds that clamored around Jesus’ pathway to the cross, the people of Jerusalem would learn what it meant to feel the full force and fierceness of the Roman army. There would be no mercy at all. Rome would lay siege to Jerusalem. The people inside the walls would spend months in anguish and starvation. They would turn on each other in despicable sin. Then the Roman army would attack with the full range of their powerful weaponry. The very streets that the people walked and the glorious Temple would be laid to waste, and the Jewish nation would be utterly destroyed.

Jesus knew that His terrible trial would come to a distinct end. In three days, He was going to rise again to eternal glory. But many horrors still lay ahead for the people of Jerusalem. The Spirit of Christ was so great that even in the midst of His terrible travail, He had compassion for those who were on a path to doom…and had the wherewithal to warn them.

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.

 

 

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