The Future – Come and See!

New things are just wonderful!  A new bride; a new home; a new friend; a new beginning; a new adventure; a new look; a new job; a new day; a new life!  All these and more are headed our way; or better said, we are headed toward them.  God said through His prophet Isaiah, “Behold, I will create new heavens and a new earth.  The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind.  But be glad and rejoice forever in what I will create.” (Isaiah 65:17-18 New International Version)  The apostle John heard the Lord say, “I am making everything new!” (Revelation 1:5 NIV)  Not some things, but EVERYTHING is going to be made brand, spanking NEW!  And things are going to be so new and so wonderful that we might not recognize them at all if God didn’t make it known to us.

Most people have imagined a new home for themselves.  George Washington Vanderbilt II imagined and built his new and very palatial home in Asheville, North Carolina.  Six years in the making and at 178,926 square feet, Biltmore House is the largest privately owned house in the United States and a very popular tourist attraction. Jesus told His disciples in John 14:1-3 that He was going to prepare a place for them and all who love Him – a new home.  It is called the New Jerusalem and it surpasses anything George Vanderbilt or you or I could ever imagine.  The apostle John was given a glimpse of it:

It shone with the glory of God and sparkled like a precious stone—like jasper as clear as crystal. 12 The city wall was broad and high, with twelve gates guarded by twelve angels. 15 The angel who talked to me held in his hand a gold measuring stick to measure the city, its gates, and its wall. 16 When he measured it, he found it was a square, as wide as it was long. In fact, its length and width and height were each 1,400 miles. 18 The wall was made of jasper, and the city was pure gold, as clear as glass. 19 The wall of the city was built on foundation stones inlaid with twelve precious stones . . . 21 The twelve gates were made of pearls—each gate from a single pearl! And the main street was pure gold, as clear as glass. (Excerpts from Revelation 21:11-21 New Living Translation)

Clearly there is a lot of room in what will be the new home for all who trust Jesus Christ as their Savior.  Imminent Bible teacher, Dr. David Jeremiah, calculates the size of New Jerusalem as 1,960,000 square miles, nearly four times the size of Alaska, with “room for people redeemed from every tribe, tongue, and nation throughout all history.” (The Jeremiah Study Bible, p.1867).

If John’s explanation of new things ahead is hard to grasp, just consider it simply the best possible description he could give of things so utterly indescribable.  The Hope Diamond, one of the world’s most famous gems, weighs 45.52 carats, is deep blue in color but emits a reddish glow when exposed to light.  A single crystal, it is described in three very different ways.  All the varied gemstones comprising the New Jerusalem will sparkle as one, shinning God’s glory throughout the new heavens and new earth which God said He is going to create.

And what about those new heavens and new earth?  God revealed to Peter something of how He is going to do it:  The Earth we live in and the heavens that surround it will be renovated by fire:   But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in which the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up . . . Nevertheless we, according to His promise, look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. (2 Peter 3:10, 13 New King James Version).

Global warming alarmists warn that the earth is going to be made uninhabitable by gradually rising temperatures.  Well, they are partly right.  The temperature is going to rise but suddenly – as a thief in the night.  And it won’t stop at making the earth uninhabitable – the elements will melt with fervent heat.  But after God has finished His renovation by fire, He is going to unveil new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.  The fact is everything God is doing in the present world is preparing a new people (the redeemed in Christ) who will live with Him in the New Jerusalem in the New World that He is going to create.

I know, it sounds too fantastic.  In fact it seems so completely unbelievable that more and more Christians have stopped believing it.  Many teach these and other prophetic scriptures as allegory – symbolic lingo for things we otherwise recognize and can understand in the “real world.”  Too many have just signed off trying to make sense of it and content themselves with the study of non-prophetic scriptures.  A “whatever will be” attitude makes fine lyric for a children’s song, but it is no way for God’s children to be thinking or living in respect to their future.  Indeed, the Lord declares a blessing upon all those who will read this prophecy and live their lives in light of what it says:  God blesses the one who reads the words of this prophecy to the church, and he blesses all who listen to its message and obey what it says, for the time is near. (Revelation 1:3 New Living Translation)

Contrary to Doris Day’s wonderful performance of “Que, Sera, Sera” – the future is ours to see – and we should!

Encouraging Words

Ever since Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, news in this world has been decidedly more negative than positive. But lately the steady stream of life quakes (events that shake our world universal and/or personal) could discourage even the most positive of positive thinkers and dampen the hopes of the most hopeful. A World War II type lunatic dictator lobs ballistic missiles toward peaceful countries and dares anyone to stop him. Two of the most powerful storms on record smack US head on and a third devastates Puerto Rico. Islam is rising and the Church in America declining. Hugh Hefner’s passing is lamented; disrespect for the flag is congratulated; the rule of law is fragmented; and any who think there’s something wrong with that – especially evangelical Christians – are dated and maybe even dangerous.
Unlike “Home on the Range” discouraging words are heard every day in the news and in the world we live in. It certainly was that way for Christians in the ancient Greek city of Thessalonica. Acts 17 tells of Paul’s spreading the gospel (good news) and planting a church there against fierce opposition. Persecution quickly became so intense that the apostle had to flee before giving the fledgling congregation much needed instruction. So he penned two separate letters to them ( 1 & 2 Thessalonians) to teach and encourage them. Central to what Paul encouraged them about is the Lord’s coming for His Church – the Rapture:

Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. (1 Thessalonians 4:13-17 NIV)

Here is the most vivid description in Scripture of the Rapture – that moment when Jesus fulfills His promise from John 14:1-3 to return from Heaven receive His disciples (the Church) unto himself and take them back to Heaven to be with Him forever. Jesus made that promise specifically to encourage the apostles against His imminent departure and the suffering that lay ahead for them (John 14:1; 15:20). And Paul tells the church of the Thessalonians to likewise encourage each other with these words (v.18).
Although we do not know the day or the hour of Jesus’ promised return (Mark 13:32) and even its timing might be debatable (pre-trib, mid-trib or post-trib); the fact is Jesus promised to come again – and Jesus always keeps His promises! The blessed hope of every believer (living and dead) is the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ (Titus 2:13). The Christians at Thessalonica had it bad – they had it really bad! Two millennia later, world conditions are bad and getting worse; but our hope is not in the world. Our hope is in the Lord and His promise to come and get us. It may sound stock, even worn out – but it’s what Jesus promised to do. And believers in every generation should encourage each other with these words!

Here’s to Work, and Those Who Do It!

“If a man will not work, he shall not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10 New International Version) is probably the most quoted verse on the subject of work.  But the Bible has so much more to say about it.

“By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing” (Genesis 2:2 NIV).  The French call it “fait accompli” which means an accomplished deed.  Accomplishment is something everyone craves, from the youngest to the oldest from the meekest to the boldest.  If you ever wanted anything so much that the thought of it motivated you to take action, to work until you got it; then you understand the satisfaction that comes from accomplishment.  When God finished His creative work, He was very satisfied and said so:  “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good” (Genesis 1:31 King James Version).

Jesus said, “I must work the works of Him who sent Me while it is day; the night is coming when no one can work.” (John 9:4-5 New King James Version)  Well, maybe people didn’t work after dark in Jesus’ day, but they certainly do now and have for a long time.  Jesus’ point was not to procrastinate in doing the works that God has put you in the world to do:  “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2:10 NIV)  Whether you ever realized it or not, you are here on assignment – as Jesus was.  The New Testament teaching on this is abundantly clear, i.e. every believer in Christ has a work or works that God intends to do through them:  “God works in different ways, but it is the same God who does the work in all of us.” (1 Corinthians 12:6 New Living Translation)  If you haven’t already, ask God to make plain what your assignment is and get to it.  Time is wasting!

“Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 1:6 NIV)  Being confident that you can do your job and do it well is very important to both employers and employees.  But when it comes to doing the work of salvation in your life and mine, our confidence is not in us, but totally in the Lord.  He is the One who started His work of grace in my life, and He is the One who will finish it successfully.  Salvation is not my life’s work for the Lord; it is His work in my life:  “For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift— not from works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9 Holman Christian Standard Bible)

“And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.” (Genesis 2:3 NIV)  When Mary and I were in Europe a while back, we discovered that on Sundays everything (well almost everything) shuts down.  The shops are closed; even truckers on the road stop where they are and rest on Sundays.  “Wow!” we thought.  “We haven’t done this in America in a very long time!”  Now sadly, most that stop their work on Sundays in Europe aren’t doing it to attend church and worship God.  But at least they still recognize the importance of resting from their work.  God needed no rest – He’s God after all.  But by resting He set an example for us which is very good that we follow.  Jesus trained His disciples to take time to rest, even from the busy-ness of the Lord’s work (Mark 6:31).

This Labor Day we celebrate again the significance of both labor and the laborers.  Few things in life give a greater sense of satisfaction with life than a job well done.  As a believer in Jesus Christ, your job, whatever the job, is an assignment from God.  Do it with your might (Ecclesiastes 9:10); do it for His glory (1 Corinthians 10:31).  Be confident in knowing that the work the Lord started in you, He will finish in you.  And take time to rest.  After all, it is a holiday.

New Birth – Seeing God’s Kingdom and Entering In – Part 2

“The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

“How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.

“You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? I tell you the truth, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven — the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”
(John 3:8-17 New International Version)

The way we see the world and how God sees it are two very different things.  We see things three dimensionally (3D) as defined by length, width and height.  All dimensions are equally real but are not always equally seen.  The world is what it is but how we see it depends on our vision or perspective.  God’s perspective of the world is material, spiritual and eternal.  All the dimensions are real but not all are visible to you and me.

The material dimension of God’s kingdom is the only one visible to natural eyes.  Everything in heaven and earth (the material universe) was created by God: In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1).  It all belongs to Him, i.e. it is within His dominion, His kingdom (Psalm 24:1).  God governs the material universe via natural, physical laws which He set in place (Psalm 104:19; Isaiah 55:10).  Nicodemus was confounded by Jesus’ statement that he must be born again because he was seeing or thinking only in a material or physical sense (vv.3-6).

The spiritual dimension of God’s kingdom is just as real as the material but can only be seen through spiritual eyes“For the natural man is not able to take in the things of the Spirit of God: for they seem foolish to him, and he is not able to have knowledge of them, because such knowledge comes only through the Spirit” (1 Corinthians 2:14 Bible in Basic English).  God created humans as body (material) and soul (spiritual) (Genesis 2:7).  He also warned the first couple that breaking His rule would bring death to them (Genesis 2:17).  Sovereign God gave human kind the freedom to choose life with Him or death apart from Him.  And you know the rest of that story (Genesis 3:1-24).  Question:  Why didn’t Adam and Eve die when they sinned?  Answer:  They did – spiritually:  “The soul that sinneth, it shall die” (Ezekiel 18:20).  Their bodies also began to die:  It is appointed unto men once to die (Hebrews 9:27).  Sovereign God delayed death to give the first man and woman a second chance and to give all of us (their descendants) the opportunity to choose life with Him forever – The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9 New International Version).  However, our present lifeless condition spiritually prevents our seeing/understanding the spiritual dimension of God’s kingdom in a world that is materially minded.  If this all seems foolish to you, then you know how Nicodemus felt.  And even more incredible is the eternal/heavenly dimension of God’s kingdom which Jesus speaks of next.

The eternal dimension of God’s kingdom is the one you definitely don’t want to miss.  Jesus gently reprimanded Nicodemus for his lack of understanding new birth (vv.7-10).  The Old Testament scriptures, which the learned teacher knew well, pointed to it:

Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. 

Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me.

Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.

(Psalm 51:10-12 New International Version)

Salvation, i.e. being born again, is when God creates in us a pure heart and restores or renews a steadfast spirit – a loyal and obedient spirit to Him – within me.  And all this is accomplished by the Holy Spirit who comes to live within us as He did in Adam before He sinned.  It is the presence of God’s Holy Spirit that makes our soul (spiritual man) come alive.  That’s what it means to be born again and that is the dimension of God’s kingdom, His rule in our lives that is eternal (without end):  But from everlasting to everlasting the Lord’s love is with those who fear him (Psalm 103:17, 19 NIV).

Just a few more things you should know.  First, we cannot determine our own opportunity for new birth; the Holy Spirit alone determines that (John 1:12-13).  So, when the wind blows on you (v.8), when opportunity knocks (Revelation 3:20) – you need to open the door to God.  Second, God’s kingdom – in the eternal sense – is a heavenly thing (v.12) waiting to be accomplished on earth, and Jesus instructed that we should pray for it and seek it above all other things (Matthew 6:10, 33).  Finally, entry into God’s kingdom and possession of eternal life is available to any and all who believes in him, i.e. Jesus, the Son of Man, and the Son of God (vv.14-16).

The message of Jesus to all is this:  “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” (Matthew 4:17 NIV)

Can you see it now?

New Birth – Seeing God’s Kingdom and Entering In

Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.”

3 In reply Jesus declared, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”

4 “How can a man be born when he is old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!”

5 Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’
(John 3:1-7 New International Version)

There is a world you must be born to see.  It isn’t known at just what point in development the unborn is able to see, but at 9 to 12 weeks the eyelids close and remain closed for several months. (Wikipedia.org, Fetus)  We do know that at 30 weeks they can hear and at 38 weeks they can identify their mother’s voice from other voices. (Scienceline.org/2007/08/20/ask-moser-ultrasound)  But whatever else they are able to perceive about the world outside the womb, it is certain that they cannot see it.  They must be born to see it.

Jesus told Nicodemus, a man of great learning, a teacher and leader of his people, that there is a world (the kingdom of God) “no one can see . . . unless he is born again” (v.3).  The nature of human kind is both flesh and spirit:  “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit” (v.6).  No more than the eyes of the unborn can see beyond the world of the womb, the eyes of flesh cannot perceive the things which are spiritual:  “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him”— but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit” (1 Corinthians 2:9-10 NIV).

Max Lucado tells the story of Bob Edens who was blind for 51 years.  “He couldn’t see a thing.  His world was a black hall of sounds and smells. He felt his way through five decades of darkness. And then, he could see. A skilled surgeon performed a complicated operation and, for the first time, Bob Edens had sight. He found it overwhelming. “I never would have dreamed that yellow is so…yellow,” he exclaimed. “I don’t have the words. I am amazed by yellow. But red is my favorite color. I just can’t believe red. I can see the shape of the moon–and I like nothing better than seeing a jet plane flying across the sky leaving a vapor trail. And of course, sunrises and sunsets. And at night I look at the stars in the sky and the flashing light. You could never know how wonderful everything is.” (From God Came Near, Multnomah Press)  Only the Spirit of God can give us spiritual eyes with which to see “what God has prepared for those who love him” and only then will we understand what so mystified Nicodemus (v.9).

Jesus preached about God’s kingdom (Matthew 4:17).  He taught His disciples to pray that God’s kingdom come and to seek it before anything else (Matthew 6:10, 33).   Jesus wanted Nicodemus to see and enter into “the kingdom of God” (vv.3, 5).  But what does the kingdom of God mean?

 In the days of kings and kingdoms people spoke often about the king’s dominion.  Over time they shortened the phrase into the one word “king-dom”.  So, “the kingdom of God” means His dominion – everywhere that His word is obeyed and His will unchallenged.  Well then, if God is Sovereign and His kingdom everywhere (as Christianity teaches), why can’t everyone see it and aren’t we all already in it?  Just like the unborn child lives in its own world but encompassed by a greater, larger world beyond the womb’s dimension, the kingdom of God is also multi-dimensional.  And, just like the babe in the womb cannot see the greater world/kingdom of which it is a part or enter it apart from being born into it, we can never see or enter into the other dimensions of God’s kingdom apart from a new and spiritual birth – “You must be born again” (v.7).

What the multiple dimensions of God’s kingdom are; how God is but isn’t yet Sovereign everywhere and in everything; and just how we can be born again into His kingdom, are subjects for my next blog.

God bless you.

Does God Hate Some People?

In last Sunday’s message taken from Malachi 1:1-5, I asked the question – “Does God really love some people and hate others?”  The answer is an emphatic “No!”  But the history of God’s dealings with Jacob and his descendants, the nation Israel, and Esau and his descendants, the ancient Edomites, is a compelling illustration of how God loves us, and how we, by our response to His love determine our life and our future.

God said to Israel through His prophet, Malachi:  “I have loved you” (v.2).   Skeptical Israel asked, “How have you loved us?”  God replied in a way understood by the people of that day, but a conundrum to those familiar with 1 John 4:8: “God is love.”  Fifth century Israel recognized the reference to their forefather Jacob and his brother Esau, sons of Isaac and grandsons of Abraham.  Even before birth, the twins wrestled in Rebekah’s womb; and their descendants struggled ever thereafter.  The Bible excerpts a history of rage between the two nations:  Numbers chapter twenty records the Edomites’ refusal to help Israel, newly delivered from Egyptian slavery; and the book of Obadiah prophesied doom to Edom for their ill treatment of their brothers in the days just prior to Babylonian captivity.  Also, Obadiah’s prophecy revealed that while “the house of Jacob will possess its inheritance” . . .  “the house of Esau will be stubble” . . . “There will be no survivors from the house of Esau.” (Obadiah 17-18).

God’s point in Malachi 1:2-3 is that He had loved them (the nation Israel) by dealing with both them and Esau (the nation Edom) exactly as He had prophesied in His Word. Since making them a nation, God had dealt with Israel according to what Moses called a covenant of love.   His covenant of love governed how God conducted Himself toward Israel and toward any who would keep it:

Know therefore that the Lord your God is God; he is the faithful God, keeping his covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commands. (Deuteronomy 7:9 NIV)

Throughout the Old Testament (Old Covenant) period, this defined how God dealt with His chosen people.  It guaranteed God’s blessings to those who love Him. It also promised destruction for those who hate Him:

But those who hate him he will repay to their face by destruction; he will not be slow to repay to their face those who hate him. (Deuteronomy 7:10 NIV)

Deuteronomy 7:11 also made clear the choice was individual whether they loved God and enjoyed the blessings or hated Him and incurred destruction.

God is love (1 John 4:8) and He always deals with the whole world according to love (John 3:16).  When Jesus Christ came, He established a New Covenant which defines how God deals now with anyone and everyone who chooses to accept it:

For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.  For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. (John 3:16-17 NKJV)

God didn’t hate Esau or the Edomites or anyone else.  “Esau have I hated” is euphemism for them that hate God (Psalm 9:17).  From before time began, “God is love” and has dealt with us, all of us, according to His great love ultimately expressed in His giving Jesus Christ to the world.  But whether you enjoy the blessings promised to those who love Him or suffer the destruction appointed to those who hate Him is a choice only you can make.

 

 

 

The Choice is Ours to Make a Difference

Paul wrote in Philippians 2:13:  For it is God who is working in you, enabling you both to will and to act for His good purpose (Holman Christian Standard Bible).

Yesterday, July 27, 2017, the United States Senate failed in an attempt to repeal the Affordable Healthcare Act, aka – Obamacare.  After months (years) of promises to do so; after myriads of amendments proffered; and after all debate concluded – it was time to vote.  In that vote every senator exercised the authority given them by their state’s constituents both to choose and to act in their behalf.  American history records and the future will prove just how significant a choice, a vote can be in affecting many, many lives.

The story of Esther in the Old Testament is one of the greatest examples of what one person’s choice can mean in the greater scheme of things.  The fate of the Jewish people and the future of western civilization as it unfolded were given into the hands of this young and inexperienced queen of Persia.  In the fifth century B.C. the people descended from Abraham through Isaac, i.e. the Jews lived scattered throughout the vast Persian Empire which extended from India to Egypt and was ruled by the monarch Xerxes.  The king’s right-hand man, Haman, hated the Jews and devised a plan to exterminate them.  Upon discovering the plan Esther’s cousin and adoptive father, Mordecai, appealed to her to intercede with the king on her people’s behalf.  But according to the law of that time, anyone approaching the king uninvited would be put to death.  Naturally, Esther hesitated to do as Mordecai asked and so informed him.  Mordecai’s response was both compelling to Esther and important for our consideration:

“For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14 New International Version)

Mordecai’s words revealed that God’s plan was to give relief and deliverance for the Jews and perhaps He had given Esther royal position to do exactly that.  Esther had to consider that her place in history was according to a greater plan that concerned all history.  God himself had providentially put her in a place to make a difference; but Esther had to decide herself what she would do.  Her choice to risk her own life by approaching the king uninvited and the deliverance it brought is celebrated annually by Jews all over the world in the festival of Purim.

Like Esther, let us consider Mordecai’s advice that we are living in the time where and when God meant us to be.  Also ponder the apostle Paul’s point that God is today working in you and me, enabling us both to choose and to act according to His good purpose.  Consider carefully the choices you make today and every day because they really will make a difference in your life and in other lives as well.

Rebuilding a Nation

The Old Testament books of Ezra and Nehemiah were originally one book in the Hebrew canon but later separated in the Septuagint.  These two books tell the story of Israel’s return to their land after seven decades in Babylonian captivity.  The Jewish nation was in shambles:   Jerusalem’s walls lay in ruin, the temple was rubble and God’s people openly rebelled against His covenant.  How do you rebuild a nation?  Call in the builders!

Cyrus the Great (c.590 – 529 B.C.) – an empire builder.  We read about him in world history textbooks.  He was the first monarch of the Persian Empire which he established by diplomacy as much as military might.  His uncommon and merciful treatment of his subjects earned him great favor even among those he conquered.  One example of Cyrus’ generosity is recorded in Ezra chapter one.  It was Cyrus who ordered that God’s people, the Jews, be allowed to return to Jerusalem and there build the temple to the LORD (Ezra 1:1-4).  Greater than Cyrus’ kindness, however, was the word of the LORD bringing all this to pass.  Quite likely the king was acquainted with Isaiah’s prophecy written over a century before naming Cyrus as God’s servant who would return Israel to their land and lay the foundation of a new temple (Isaiah 44:28-45:6).  Ezra 1:1 says, “in order to fulfill the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah, the LORD moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia to make a proclamation.”  Jeremiah prophesied that after seventy years captivity in Babylon, God would punish Babylon for their ill treatment of Israel.  In 586 B.C. Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, destroyed Jerusalem and the temple and carried the Jews into captivity.  Cyrus conquered Babylon in 539 B.C and one year later (538 B.C.) gave his proclamation allowing the Jews to return and rebuild the temple.  While the foundation was laid in Cyrus’ time, the temple was not completed until 516 B.C. during the reign of Darius – exactly seventy years after the Jews captivity began.  God’s Word never fails!

Zerubbabel (538-516 B.C.) – the temple builder.  Zerubbabel grandson of Jehoiachin (Judah’s next to last king) and a descendant of David, was appointed governor over Judah and led the first band of Jews back to their homeland. Nearly 50,000 followed Zerubbabel, but the great majority of Jews had made new homes away from home and so remained in Babylon.  Though King Cyrus was very generous in his patronage of the returnees, the journey home was long, difficult and filled with opponents.  Building the temple was Zerubbabel’s goal, but first there had to be an altar on which to make sacrifices.  Three times it says they did according to “what was written in the book of Moses” (3:2, 4; 6:18).  Hebrews 9:22 states, “The law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” (NIV) Zerubbabel understood from God’s Word what many even now do not, i.e. the only way to God is through the blood.  Under the Old Covenant, the blood of animals was required, but it only foreshadowed the blood of Jesus Christ which makes it possible for us to enter God’s presence (Hebrews 10:1, 19-22).  All are welcome to enter God’s house, but only those covered in the blood of Christ may stand before God.  “How can a young man keep his way pure?  By living according to your word.” (Psalm 119:9 NIV)

Ezra (458 B.C.) – a faith builder.  Ezra was a priest and a scribe and is credited by tradition as author of 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah and Psalm 119.  He also led the council of 120 men who formed the Old Testament canon of Scripture.  Ezra 7:10 says, “Ezra had devoted himself to the study and observance of the Law of the LORD, and to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel.”  During the reign of King Artaxerxes, about 80 years after Zerubbabel, Ezra led a second group of returnees to Jerusalem.  There he found the temple rebuilt but the lives of the people in ruins.  Intermarriage with peoples worshiping other gods threatened the whole future of Israel, and worst of all, it was their leaders and officials leading them into this sin (Ezra 9:1-2).  A priest’s duty was to intercede for the people before God.  Particularly he was to appeal to God concerning their sins; and that’s what Ezra did.

  • He took their sins very personally (Ezra 9:3-5, 13-15).  Daniel did likewise when he prayed prior to Israel’s release from captivity (Daniel 9:1-6).  The sins of a nation are the responsibility of us all; Daniel and Ezra understood that.  Also, Jesus is our High Priest who takes our sins personally upon Himself (2 Corinthians 5:21; Hebrews 4:15).
  • He prayed and he confessed their sins (Ezra 10:1).  “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9)
  • He told them the truth about what they must do regarding their sins (Ezra 10:10-11). “And so the Lord says,  “You must leave them and separate yourselves from them. Have nothing to do with what is unclean, and I will accept you.” (2 Corinthians 6:17 GNT)

God is no respecter of persons or nations.  His forgiveness and mercy are found by all who seek it from the heart:  “Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.” (Jeremiah 29:12-14 NIV)

The Word is Our Vision

Mary and I recently took a two week tour through some of Europe’s great cities – Berlin, Dresden, Venice and Budapest – to name a few.  In every city and town were churches large and small.  From the quaint country churches to the majestic cathedrals, we were impressed by their number, their beauty and their height.  Even small towns boast multiple sanctuaries.  The architecture spans medieval to baroque to Gothic – each impressive in its own right.  And most often, the church domes and steeples stand tallest in the skyline, making it easy to locate them.  It all speaks of the profound Christian influence that once dominated European culture.  I say that past tense because, for millions of people in these great metropolises and throughout Europe, the Christian faith is a relic from the past. Some of the most impressive edifices are more visited as museums than houses of worship, and many citizens no longer identify themselves with the church – Catholic or Protestant.  Church attendance has been declining for years and continues in a downward spiral.  What happened?

While I’m no expert on European history or sociology, I do know the church and the Bible – not always together – have played profound roles in the development of European societies and culture.  The apostle Paul was perhaps first to impact Europe with the gospel in his missionary journeys and his writings to the Galatians, Corinthians, Philippians and Thessalonians. Britain received its first bishop in A.D. 37; Armenia adopted Christianity as its state religion in A.D. 301 and in 380 the Roman Empire became “officially Christian”.  As the power of the Roman Empire waned, the Catholic Church became the single stabilizing force throughout western Europe, and over the next millennia all aspects of people’s lives – government, family, education, philosophy, art, science and medicine, music and literature – were dominated by the church.  The growth of “Christendom” however did not always equate to spreading the teachings of God’s Word. As the power of the church grew so did the desires of men to retain and consolidate their power and, as history proves, power corrupts.  In one of history’s greatest and most ghastly ironies, the institutional church actually became chief enemy to the spread of God’s Word – the Holy Bible.  Corrupt spiritual leaders acted to keep congregants ignorant of the Scriptures and dependent upon them for their spiritual understanding.  But the sixteenth century brought a great Reformation!

Martin Luther, a Catholic monk and university teacher, driven by a yearning for assurance of salvation and transformed in his thinking by intense Bible study, he challenged the official church teaching on multiple issues.  Luther along with John Calvin, Philip Melanchthon and many others radically reformed Christian thinking in Europe.  The “five solas” are biblical principles considered essential to the doctrine of salvation in Reformation theology and still dominate the theologies of Protestant churches today: Sola Scriptura (by Scripture alone), Sola Fide (by faith alone), Sola Gratia (by grace alone), Sola Christo (by Christ alone) and Soli Deo gloria (to the glory of God alone). Straight forward: salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. We know this through the Scripture alone, and all is for the glory of God alone.  The Reformation transformed Europe and it predetermined the prevailing ethic system communicated into the New World – America.

Subsequent to the Reformation and emanating from it there were great spiritual revivals that swept across Europe and into America.  The Wesleyan Revivals birthed tens of thousands into the kingdom of God, and the First Great Awakening (as it was called) helped birth America as a nation and the Second helped put an end to slavery in the western world.  But the eighteenth century brought new ways of thinking into popular light – atheism and agnosticism.  It was called the “Age of Enlightenment” but it brought only darkness to the minds and souls of multitudes.  Jesus said, “If the light you think you have is actually darkness, how deep that darkness is.” (Matthew 6:23, New Living Translation)  The nineteenth and twentieth centuries added a growing fascination with Eastern religions and introduced syncretism, New Age and various religious movements into the mix.  And most recently secularization and religious pluralism have served to divorce many in Europe and America from their Christian cultural heritage.

What happened and continues to happen in Europe is happening in America also, though perhaps at a slower pace.  People have lost their vision, i.e. their moral and spiritual direction, which historically in the West they received from the Holy Scriptures. The bombings of World War II destroyed much in Europe.  Since the war many of the beautiful churches have been rebuilt and restored to their former glory. But it is far easier to rebuild a structure than to restore a faith.  One thing is certain – “Faith comes by hearing the Word of God” (Romans 10:17).  What Europe and America need, today more than ever, is the Word of God in their hearing.  Jesus’ parting command to all believers was this:  “Go into all the world and preach the gospel” (Mark 16:15).  My goal and purpose in this blog is to do exactly that.