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.