Observations on life; particularly spiritual

Posts tagged “Jerusalem

Search for the real Jesus

“Believers revere Him as the Son of God. Skeptics dismiss Him as a legend. Artists cast Him in images that reflect their own time and place. Today, archaeologists digging in the Holy Land are helping to sift fact from fiction”. That’s the introduction to an article in National Geographic magazine (December 2017) by Kristin Romey on what archaeology reveals about the life of Jesus. Romey hoped to discover how Christians texts and traditions compare to the discoveries of archaeologists.

Could Jesus have never existed?

Is it possible that the story of Jesus is pure invention and He never really existed? Although this is the view of some outspoken skeptics, it’s not that of scholars such as archaeologists. Professor Eric Meyers of Duke University says, “I don’t know any mainstream scholar who doubts the historicity of Jesus. The details have been debated for centuries, but no one who is serious doubts that he’s a historical figure”. And professor Bryon McCane of Atlantic University says, “I can think of no other example who fits into their time and place so well but people say doesn’t exist”. Even scholars who disbelieve Christ’s miraculous deeds believe that Jesus did certain things in Galilee and he did certain things in Jerusalem that resulted in his execution.

The evidence that Jesus existed is conclusive. Ancient Roman and Jewish extra-biblical literature confirm that there is a historical basis for the existence of Jesus outside the Bible and outside early church history. These independent extra-biblical sources are consistent with the biography of Jesus given in the gospels of the Bible.

Historians and archaeologists agree that Jesus existed, but not all of them believe Jesus was the Son of God who died and rose from the dead. New Testament historians  talk about the quest or search for the historical Jesus, which seeks to answer the question, how much of the New Testament  portrait of Jesus is historically accurate and how much (if any) did the early church make up?

Jesus in Bethlehem

Excavations at Bethlehem have so far turned up no artefacts dating to the time of Christ, nor any signs that early Christians considered the site sacred. Archaeology cannot prove or disprove that two people visited Bethlehem and gave birth to a child. But absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence. It’s rare to have any archaeological proof of a person who lived about 2,000 years ago.

Romey claims that Matthew and Luke provide diverging accounts of Christ’ birth with the manger and shepherds in Luke and the wise men, the massacre of children and flight to Egypt in Matthew. But this is very poor exegesis. Luke describes the birth, while Matthew describes how the birth came about (Mt. 1:18-25), the visit of the wise men (2:1-12), the escape to Egypt (2:13-18), and the return to Nazareth (2:19-23). The wise men didn’t visit Jesus on the night He was born, but some 1-2 years later when Jesus was a child in His house, and not a baby in a manger (2:11). And Herod ordered for the boys in Jerusalem who were “two years old and under” to be killed, not babies (2:16). This suggests that more than a year elapsed from Jesus’ birth to the wise men’s visit. Since Herod the Great died in 4BC, Jesus may have been born 6-5BC. Herod’s slaughter of babies is consistent with his executing his wife Mariamne I and three of his sons for perceived threats to his kingdom. So those like Romey who claim that Matthew and Luke are divergent accounts of Christ’s birth haven’t read the text very carefully.

Jesus in Galilee

In the first century AD Palestine was ruled by the Roman Empire. Jesus’ boyhood home, Nazareth,was just 5 km (3 miles) from Sepphoris, the Roman provincial capital. When archaeologists explored the ruins of the residential quarter of Sepphoris they found at least 30 mikvahs (Jewish ritual baths). This is the largest domestic concentration ever found by archaeologists. “Along with ceremonial stone vessels and a striking absence of pig bones (pork being shunned by kosher-keeping Jews), they offer clear evidence that even this imperial Roman city remained a very Jewish place during Jesus’ formative years”. This is consistent with the Bible which shows Jesus to be a practicing Jew.

Jesus began His ministry at Capernaum, a fishing town on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee (a freshwater lake). Here archaeologists have found the remains of a first-century house that was rapidly transformed into a public meeting place. It looks like a gathering place of the early church, which was later expanded into a larger house of worship.

In 1986 the remains of a wooden boat (the Jesus boat) that dates from the first century were found in the Sea of Galilee. Measuring 2.3 m (7.5 ft) wide and 8 m (27 ft) long, it could have accommodated 13 men. This is consistent with the Biblical accounts of the disciples fishing from a boat and sailing across the Sea of Galilee.

At the site of ancient Magdala on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, archaeologists have excavated the ruins of a synagogue from the times of Jesus.  This is consistent with the Bible which shows Jesus to be a practicing Jew. “The find was especially significant because it put to rest an argument made by skeptics that no synagogues existed in Galilee until decades after Jesus’ death”. “At the center of the room there was a stone (the Magdala stone) about the size of a footlocker that showed the most sacred elements of the temple in Jerusalem carved in relief. This discovery struck a death blow to the once fashionable notion that Galileans were impious hillbillies detached from Israel’s religious center”.

“Accounts of large crowds coming to Jesus for healing are consistent with what archaeology reveals about first-century Palestine, where diseases such as leprosy and tuberculous were rife”. For example, it was found that about 70% of graves in Roman Palestine held the remains of children and adolescents. So there was a high rate of infant and child mortality at this time.

Jesus in Jerusalem

Many archaeological discoveries have been made at Jerusalem that support the Biblical account of the life of Jesus. These include:
– The site of the Pool of Bethesda and the Pool of Siloam.
– An ornate burial ossuary (bone box) that may contain the bones of Caiaphas the Jewish high priest.
– A heel bone driven through with an iron crucifixion nail found in the burial of a Jewish man named Yehohanan.

Also, an inscription was found in Caesarea attesting to the rule of Pontius Pilate (the Pilate stone).

What did Jesus look like?

Jesus was a Palestinian Jew. Since Roman-era frescos, artists have drawn and painted images of Jesus which tend to reflect the era when they were created. When Jesus was arrested in the garden of Gethsemane before the crucifixion, Judas Iscariot had to show the soldiers who Jesus was because they could not tell him apart from his disciples (Mt. 26:48-49; Mk. 14:44-45). Richard Neave, a medical artist retired from The University of Manchester in England, specializes in recreating images of historical figures. In 2015 he used three skulls from the time of Jesus to create an image of a typical adult man who lived in the same place and at the same time as Jesus. This image had dark olive skin, short curly hair, a prominent nose, dark eyes, a beard  and was about 1.55 m (5ft 1in) tall and weighed about 50 kg (110 pounds). Neave’s image is probably a lot closer to the truth than the portrayal of Jesus by the artists.

Lessons for us

The National Geographic article confirms that archaeological discoveries in Palestine are consistent with the New Testament and do not contradict it.

But the best place to search for the real Jesus is in the New Testament. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and Acts give the best historical accounts and selective biographies of the life of Jesus Christ. As these were written within a few decades of the events they recount, they are more accurate than opinions formed by commentators about 2,000 years later.

So, read the New Testament to find out what Jesus did and taught and how His ministry impacted people across the Roman Empire in the first century. Since then, His ministry has impacted people across the world.

Reference

Romey K (2017) “The search for the real Jesus”, National Geographic, 323, 6 (Dec 2017), 30-69

Written, February 2019

Also see: Extra-biblical evidence of Jesus


Rebellion and deception at Samaria

trojan horse as depicted in vergilius vaticanus 400pxThe Trojan Horse is a story by Homer about the deception that the Greeks used to enter the city of Troy and win the Trojan War. After a 10-year siege, the Greeks constructed a huge wooden horse, and hid a select force of men inside. The Greeks pretended to sail away, and the Trojans pulled the horse into their city as a victory trophy. That night the Greek force crept out of the horse and opened the gates for the rest of the Greek army, which had sailed back under cover of night. The Greeks entered and destroyed the city of Troy, ending the war.

In this post we look at an older example of deception.

A promise and warning

After king Solomon had finished building the temple, God promised that if he was obedient his dynasty would always rule over Israel (1 Ki. 9:1-9; 2 Chron. 7:17-22). But if his descendants turned to follow other gods there would be disaster and they would be cut off from their land and the temple would be destroyed.

Solomon’s disobedience

The Israelites were told not to intermarry with other nations because this would cause them to follow other gods (1 Ki. 11:1-8). But king Solomon “loved many foreign women”, and “his wives led him astray”. “As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the Lord his God, as the heart of David his father had been. He followed Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and Molek the detestable god of the Ammonites. So Solomon did evil in the eyes of the Lord; he did not follow the Lord completely, as David his father had done. On a hill east of Jerusalem, Solomon built a high place for Chemosh the detestable god of Moab, and for Molek the detestable god of the Ammonites. He did the same for all his foreign wives, who burned incense and offered sacrifices to their gods” (v.4-8NIV).

The punishment for this disobedience was that the kingdom of Israel would be divided (1 Ki. 11:9-13). And that’s what happened. Ten tribes followed Jeroboam and set up the kingdom of Israel in the north and two tribes followed Rehoboam and set up the kingdom of Judah in the south.

samaria - david roberts 1839 400pxThe kingdom of Israel rebels against God

As Jerusalem was in Judah, Jeroboam set up golden calves to worship in Bethel and Dan and led the Israelites into idolatry. At first Jeroboam was based at Shechem, but then he moved to Tirzah (1 Ki. 12:25; 14:17). The first five kings of Israel reigned from Tirzah, the capital of the northern kingdom. The next king Omri reigned in Tirzah for 6 years before buying the hill of Samaria and building his palace and the city there in about 925BC (1 Ki. 16:23-24). Samaria is 55 km (35 miles) north of Jerusalem.

Omni’s son, king Ahab built, an altar in Samaria to Baal, a pagan god, under the influence of his wife, Jezebel. The palace was called the “Ivory house” (1 Kings 22:39), the furniture and some of the wall decor was made of ivory. In the Bible, Samaria was condemned by the Hebrew prophets for its “ivory houses” and luxury palaces displaying pagan riches.

Ahab was the most evil of the kings of Samaria: “There was never anyone like Ahab, who sold himself to do evil in the eyes of the Lord, urged on by Jezebel his wife. He behaved in the vilest manner by going after idols, like the Amorites the Lord drove out before Israel” (1 Ki. 21:25).

All the remaining kings of Israel ruled from Samaria. They all “did evil in the eyes of the Lord” (1 Ki. 22:52) and followed the sins of Jeroboam (2 Ki. 13:2) despite the warnings of the prophets Micaiah, Ahijah, Jehu, Elijah, Elisha, Hosea, Amos, and Jonah.

The false prophets deceive Israel

There were many false prophets in Samaria. During the reign of Ahab there were 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of Asherah (1 Ki. 18:19; 22:6).

After Aram (Syria) captured Ramoth Gilead from Israel, king Ahab planned a war against them (2 Chron. 18:1-34). He asked for help from the king of Judah. When they asked the false prophets for a message from God, they were told to go ahead because they would be victorious. The Arameans would be destroyed. But Micaiah, a true prophet, predicted their defeat and Ahab’s death. And that’s what happened. Meanwhile, king Ahab had Micaiah imprisoned.

Although the Israelites in Samaria continued to follow the false prophets rather than the true ones, and they continued to worship idols, God didn’t punish them yet.

God’s mercy

In His mercy God delayed His punishment and so provided Israel with an opportunity to repent and obey the covenant once again. The kingdom continued for 130 years after the reign of king Ahab. Although they sinned, God didn’t forget the covenant He had with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God was patient with them. For example:
–  Aram (Syria) besieged Samaria and they were starving. But God miraculously rescued them (2 Ki. 6:24 – 7:20).
– “Hazael king of Aram oppressed Israel throughout the reign of Jehoahaz. But the Lord was gracious to them and had compassion and showed concern for them because of his covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. To this day he has been unwilling to destroy them or banish them from his presence” (2 Ki. 13:22-23).
– “Since the Lord had not said he would blot out the name of Israel from under heaven, he saved them by the hand of Jeroboam son of Jehoash” (2 Ki. 14:26-27).

God’s judgment – The kingdom destroyed

The climax of the covenant curses for disobedience was Israel’s expulsion from Canaan (Lev. 26; Dt. 28). During the reign of Jeru the kingdom of Israel experienced the beginnings of this curse. God judged Israel at this time by giving some of their land to the Arameans (2 Ki. 10:32-33). Then Pul the king of Assyria invaded Israel and taxed the wealthy (2 Ki. 15:19-20). And Tiglath-Pileser the king of Assyria attacked the northern tribes in 738-732 BC and deported people to Assyria (2 Ki. 15:29). Israel was a vassal under Shalmaneser the king of Assyria (2 Ki. 17:3-6). But when they stopped paying tribute, the Assyrians besieged Samaria for three years and captured the city in 722 BC.

samaria map 400pxThe Assyrians then deported many of the people out of the northern kingdom, and brought in many people from Babylon and other countries to live in Israel. Sargon II claimed to have deported 27,290 Israelites to Assyria. This policy of deportation and re-population was intended to weaken the countries that Assyria dominated, to make it more difficult for a group of people to rise up and try to reclaim independence for their homeland. In time, these different groups of people intermarried and the whole area around the city of Samaria became known as Samaria, and the people became known as the Samaritans. The leadership of Samaria was taken away and replaced by foreign peoples. So the Jews in Judea regarded the Samaritans as a mixed race, and not true Israelites.

God’s promise to Solomon was fulfilled. After they rebelled against God for many years, Israel was eventually “cut off from their land”. They suffered a similar fate to the Canaanites who were driven from their land about 780 years earlier. The Bible says that Israel was exiled because of their sin (2 Ki. 17:7-23). They had repeatedly refused to heed the prophet’s warnings of impending judgment. Instead, they followed idols and disobeyed the covenant obligations. They had been deceived by their leaders and by the false prophets.

Samaria only lasted about 200 years as a capital city. But its name continued as it was used to describe that region of the kingdom of Israel. The Bible says that those who resettled in Samaria continued to worship their national deities (2 Ki. 17:24-41). They also practiced syncretism – they mixed different religions together (this has been confirmed by archaeologists).

In 332 BC, Alexander the Great captured the city and settled Macedonian soldiers there following a revolt by the Samaritans. And in 108 BC, John Hyrcanus (a Jewish Maccabean) conquered and destroyed the city. King Herod the Great later rebuilt the city and named it Sebaste. Today the ruins of the Israelite town, as well the ruins of towns built at this same location later in history, are all adjacent or within the modern Palestinian village of Sebastia.

Samaritans oppose the rebuilding of Jerusalem

In about 627BC, the prophet Jeremiah warned the people of Jerusalem that like Samaria, because of their idolatry, they would be invaded and deported (Jer. 7:15). And in 586 BC, Judea was invaded and Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians. Many of the Jews were exiled to Babylon. After the 70 year exile, Zerubbabel returned to rebuild the temple and Nehemiah returned to rebuild the city wall. Both of them were opposed by Samaritans. For example, the Samaritans:
– Pretended that they wanted to assist in the rebuilding of the temple when in fact they wanted to disrupt the work (Ezra 4:1-3).
– Tried to “discourage the people of Judah and make them afraid to go on building” (Ezra 4:4).
– “Bribed officials to work against them and frustrate their plans” (Ezra 4:4). They succeeded in having work on the temple stopped for 20 years until the second year of Darius’s reign (Ezra 4:24).
– Wrote letters to Xerxes and Artaxerxes to try to stop the rebuilding of the city wall (Ezra 4:6-23).

Sanballat and Tobiah led the opposition to Nehemiah. Sanballat was a prominent Samaritan – he held a position of authority in Samaria (Neh. 4:1-2). Sanballat and Tobiah:
– Ridiculed the Jews.
– Plotted to fight against Jerusalem and stir up trouble against it (Neh. 4:8).
– Tried to get Nehemiah to leave his work and meet with them in the plain of Ono in order to assassinate him (Neh. 6:1-4). They did this four times!
– Sent a letter with false accusations to Nehemiah (Neh. 6:5).
– Hired false prophets to trick Nehemiah into sinning so they could discredit him (Neh. 6:10-13).
– Tried to intimidate Nehemiah (Neh. 6:14).

One of Nehemiah’s reforms was to banish the high priest’s son because he was son-in-law of Sanballat the Samaritan!

So the Samaritans opposed those who returned to Judah from the exile in Babylon. This rebellion against the God of Judah was similar to the rebellion that had occurred in the kingdom of Israel.

Good news for Samaritans

In New Testament times the country of Samaria was the area bounded by the Mediterranean Sea (west), the Jordan Valley (east), Judea (south) and Galilee (north). During the time of Jesus there was continuing hostility between Jews and Samaritans (Jn. 4:9; 8:48; Lk. 9:52-53). When the Jews wanted to ridicule Jesus, they said that He was a Samaritan, which was a racial slur (Jn. 8:48).

The disciples were surprised to find Jesus speaking with a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well (Jn. 4:7-9). He revealed to her that He was the Messiah. And she believed and so did many other Samaritans (Jn. 4:28-42). This showed that salvation was being extended to all the people of the world and not just Jews.

In the parable of the good Samaritan, Jesus shows that the Samaritan acted as a neighbour who helped the injured man, whereas the Jewish Priest and the Levite didn’t help the man. So the one that Jesus commended was a hated foreigner. Jesus is saying that the command to “love your neighbour as yourself” crosses national and racial boundaries.

When Jesus healed ten men with leprosy, the only one who thanked Him was a Samaritan (Lk. 17:11-19). This indicates that Jesus didn’t show favoritism to the Jews, but included the marginalized in His ministry.

Jesus told His disciples to be His witnesses “in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Philip took the gospel to Samaria and churches were established there (Acts 8:5-14; 9:31). And Peter and John also preached in Samaria (Acts 8:25).

Lessons for us

We have looked at what the Bible says about the 200 year history of Samaria as a capital city and about the following 750 year history of Samaria as a region in Palestine. Although it was settled by God’s people, it was a center of disobedience and rebellion against God. The people were deceived by the leaders and the false prophets. And they suffered the consequences. But God kept the promises He made to Moses and Solomon. He said that disobedience would lead to being removed from their land. And that’s what happened.

God was patient, giving them lots of time to repent and change to obey the covenant. But in the long term, judgement comes to those who rebel against God. And  in the long term, false prophets will be shown to be wrong.

Jesus reached out to the Samaritans even though they followed a corrupted version of the Pentateuch. And the apostles preached the gospel to the Samaritans and set up churches.

From these events we learn that:
– If God kept the promises He made in the Old Testament, then He will also keep the promises He makes to us in the New Testament.
– If God was patient in judging the Israelites, He will be patient in judging people today. Peter confirms this, “The Lord is not slow in keeping His promise, as some understand slowness. Instead He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Pt. 3:9).
– Let’s beware of deceivers (false teachers or false prophets) whose message isn’t consistent with that of the New Testament.
– Let’s include marginalized people in our ministries, not exclude them.
– Let’s spread the good news about Jesus to all nations and races; and not write off anyone as being unworthy of God’s love and mercy.

Written, January 2019

Also see other posts on places in the Bible:
Bethlehem, God’s solution to our crises
Gehenna – Where’s hell?
Where’s Zion?
Babylon, center of humanism and materialism
Lessons from Egypt
Lessons from Sodom
Massacres and miracles at Jericho


Babylon, center of humanism and materialism

titanic-400pxFrom Genesis to Revelation

History is full of examples of the proverb, “Pride goes before destruction” (Prov. 16:18). The Titanic was declared indestructible by its proud makers, but it sank on its maiden voyage. The word “Babylon” occurs in about 270 verses of the Bible, where it is associated with humanism, materialism, pride and wealth. But we will see that this atheistic way of life is doomed to destruction.

Is “Babel” the same as “Babylon”?

The Hebrew word that’s translated “Babylon” (Babel, Strongs #894) can also be translated “Babel”. The reason for this is that the written Hebrew text only uses consonants and not vowels. The word “Babel” means confusion, because that’s where God caused different languages to arise and cause confusion between the different groups of people (Gen. 11:9). It’s not a Hebrew word, but is a word from one of the Semitic languages of the Shinar region. “Babel” was most likely what the place of the Tower was called by the Semitic people who lived in Shinar at the time of the final editing of the Old Testament (about 450 BC). The Greek name “Babylon” comes from the Assyrian word Bab-ilani, which means “gate of the gods”. The first occurrence of this Hebrew word (Babel, Strongs #894) in the Bible is in Genesis 10:10 where a city in the kingdom of Nimrod (Noah’s great-grandson) is said to be: “Babel” (ESV, NET) or “Babylon” (CSB, NIV, NLT). And the NET says “or Babylon”, and the Septuagint (written about 3rd to 1st century BC) says “Babylon”. So the ESV is the only one of these five modern translations that doesn’t specifically equate Babel with Babylon. So the consensus is that the words Babel and Babylon refer to the same geographic location.

Nimrod was a mighty warrior and a great hunter. Babel (Babylon) was one of the cities in his kingdom and he built the city of Nineveh, which became the capital of the Assyrian Empire. Nimrod rebelled against God and the tower of Babel was probably one of his projects. His personal emblems were the dragon and the snake. “Ancient gods and their associated legends arose from the deification of dead human heroes” (Merrill, 2005). This happened to Nimrod and his wife Semiramis.

babel-tower-1-400pxAfter the flood, God told Noah’s descendants to “fill the earth” (Gen. 9:1NIV). But they embarked on a project to build a tower in order to make a name for themselves (a reputation that would be honoured after death) and thereby avoid being “scattered over the face of the earth” (Gen. 11:4). The tower was to keep people together, so they wouldn’t spread out across the earth. Maybe it was to be a place to sacrifice to God. In fact, ziggurats and pyramids have been used all over the world for religious events. It seems as though this disobedience against God’s command to fill the earth may have occurred at Babylon (Babel). However, God responded by confusing their languages, which resulted in them being scattered “over all the earth” after all (Gen. 11:9).

So, in about 2200 BC, Nimrod and the people of Babel (Babylon) rebelled against God. They were anti-God. God’s plan was that people spread out across the earth and form nations (Gen. 10 – The table of nations), whereas they congregated in the same area, glorified humanity, and took pride in their achievements.

A powerful and wicked nation

The ancient city of Babylon was located on the Euphrates river, about 80km (50 miles) south of the modern city of Baghdad (in Iraq). Abraham travelled through it on his way from Ur to Haran and then Palestine (Gen. 11:31). About 1,500 years later this city became the head of the Babylonian Empire.

After conquering Assyria in 612 BC, the Babylonians defeated the Egyptians at Carchemish in 605 BC (2 Ki. 24:7). The Babylon Empire ruled the Middle East for about 70 years (612 – 539 BC).

Babylon was a great city with an area of about 200 square miles (513 square km). It was protected by a double brick wall with towers and a moat (Jer. 51:53, 58). Access was via eight gates, the best known being the Ishtar Gate with images of dragons and bulls. There were many temples to gods and goddesses, including Marduk (also called Bel, Jer. 50:2). The hanging gardens of Babylon were one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

Babylon was likened to a queen and a jewel (Isa. 13:19; 47:5). It was a city of merchants and traders, and manufacture of clothing (Josh. 7:21; Ezek. 17:4). King Nebuchadnezzar called it “The great Babylon” and he was proud of his achievements (Dan. 4:30). Babylon was wealthy (Jer. 50:37; 51:13) and had great military and naval power (Isa. 43:14; Jer. 5:16; 50:23). The Babylonians thought they were invincible.

But the Babylonians were cruel and arrogant (Isa. 14:13-14, 17; 47:6-10; Jer. 50:31-32; 51:25; Hab. 1:6-7). They trusted in sorcery and astrology (Isa. 47:9, 12-13; Dan.2:1-2) and followed idols (Jer. 50:38; Dan. 34:18). Jeremiah said that “it is a land of idols” (Jer. 50:38). Babylonians were also irreverent and wicked (Isa. 47:10; Dan. 5:1-3) and oppressive (Isa. 14:4).

Babylon and Judah

God made a covenant with the nation of Israel (Ex. 24:1-8). The conditions of the covenant were given in the law of Moses and they were summarized in the Ten Commandments. There were rewards for keeping the covenant and punishments for disobedience (Lev. 26; Dt. 28). The punishments included being invaded, taken captive and being scattered among the nations (Lev. 26:27-35; Dt. 28:36-37, 47-57). Once Israel accepted the covenant, they were bound to the promises made to God.

Unfortunately, the message of the prophets and the history of Israel show that Israel did not keep the demands of the covenant. They broke the covenant and worship idols like Baal by offering sacrifices to them, and trusting them for fertility, healing and deliverance from enemies (Jer. 19:4-5). Because they were unfaithful to God, God divorced the kingdom of Israel and allowed them to be invaded by Assyria (Isa. 50:1; Jer. 3:1-13). But Judah took no notice of this and continued to be unfaithful! God said that they were guilty of spiritual adultery. They were like an unfaithful wife (Jer. 3:20; 9:2; Ezek. 6:9) and like a prostitute (Isa. 1:21; Jer. 3:1-5; Ezek. 16:15-34). The prophets used these metaphors repeatedly. And because Judah continued to be unfaithful to God (like an adulterer or prostitute), God’s judgement was that they would be destroyed by the nations they idolised (Ezek. 16:35-43).

Predictions

When Merodach-baladan, king of Babylon sent envoys to king Hezekiah of Judah (who ruled 715 – 686 BC), they were shown the kingdom’s wealth. After Isaiah questioned Hezekiah, he prophesied that all of Judah’s wealth “will be carried off to Babylon” and some of the people would be deported as well (2 Ki. 20:12-18; 2 Chron. 32:31; Is. 39:1-4). This prophecy happened over 100 years before the Babylonian exile and before the Babylonians defeated the Assyrians.

Because Judah was a “rebellious people”, the prophets predicted the destruction of the Jerusalem by the Babylonians (Isa. 22:1-25; Jer. 21:3-14; Ezek. 12:1-3). Ezekiel said, “Therefore the Lord Almighty says this: “Because you have not listened to my words, I will summon all the peoples of the north and my servant Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon,” declares the Lord, “and I will bring them against this land and its inhabitants and against all the surrounding nations. I will completely destroy them and make them an object of horror and scorn, and an everlasting ruin. I will banish from them the sounds of joy and gladness, the voices of bride and bridegroom, the sound of millstones and the light of the lamp. This whole country will become a desolate wasteland, and these nations will serve the king of Babylon seventy years” (Jer. 25:8-11).

Fall of Jerusalem

King Nebuchnezzar lead three campaigns against Judah: 605 BC, 580 BC and 586 BC. In the final campaign he conquered Judah, destroying Jerusalem and deported part of its population to Babylonia (2 Ki. 24:1 – 25:21; 2 Chron. 36:20-23; Ezra 5:2; Jer. 39:1-10; 52:12-30). So Babylon was God’s instrument to punish Judah (Ezek. 21:1-27).

Psalm 137 records the feelings of a Jew who was captive in Babylon. The first three verses say:

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion (Jerusalem).
There on the poplars
we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

They missed their homeland and didn’t want to sing Jewish songs to their captors. Daniel was deported in 605 BC and he tells us what it was like living in Babylon in his book of the Old Testament (Dan. Ch. 1-6).

Even the remnant of Jews who escaped to Egypt would be largely destroyed because they burnt incense to “the Queen of Heaven”, who was the Babylonian goddess Ishtar (derived from Semirami, the wife of Nimrod).

End of empire

Predicted

Although Babylon was God’s agent for the punishment of Judah, the Old Testament prophets predicted that God would also punish Babylon (Isa. 13-14; 21:1-10; 47; Jer. 25:12-14; 50-51). Babylon was to receive what she had done to others (Jer. 50:15, 29; 51:24,35,49). They said that it would become uninhabited (Isa. 13:19-22) and a heap of ruins (Jer. 51:37). Babylon’s judgement was inevitable (Isa. 47:1-15).
“Babylon, the jewel of kingdoms, the pride and glory of the Babylonians, will be overthrown by God like Sodom and Gomorrah” (Isa. 13:19).
“Babylon will be a heap of ruins, a haunt of jackals (dragons, dinosaurs) an object of horror and scorn, a place where no one lives” (Jer. 51:37).

Fall of Babylon

In 539 BC, Babylon surrendered without a battle to Cyrus king of the Persians. This enabled groups of Jews to return to help restore the city of Jerusalem in 538 BC (Zerubbabel), 458 BC (Ezra) and 444 BC (Nehemiah). Their efforts are described in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah.

Babylon fell into disrepair after the Persian empire fell to Alexander the Great in 330 BC and after this it declined in importance and it is now only a mound of rubble (a tell). The kingdoms that followed Babylon were the Medes and Persians, the Greek, and the Roman. Like the Babylonian Empire, these were all anti-God (they had different gods).

The Magi

After Jesus was born, Magi (Magos; Strongs #3097) came from the east to worship Him (Mt. 2:1, 7, 16). According to Thayer’s Greek Lexion, a magus is the name given by the Babylonians (Chaldeans), Medes, Persians, and others, to the wise men, teachers, priests, physicians, astrologers, seers, interpreters of dreams, prophets, sorcerers etc. The fact that they came from the east would have been assumed by most people in New Testament times, because the Magi were primarily known as the priestly-political class of the Parthians who lived to the east of Palestine. The magi were skilled in astronomy and astrology (which, in that day, were closely associated) and were involved in various occult practices, including sorcery, and were especially noted for their ability to interpret dreams. It is from their name that our words “magic” and “magician” are derived.

The magi were a powerful group of advisors in the Babylonian empire. Because the Lord gave Daniel the interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream; which none of the other court seers was able to do; Daniel was appointed as “ruler over the entire province of Babylon and placed him in charge of all its wise men” (Dan. 2:48).

Because of Daniel’s high position and great respect among them, the magi would have learned much from that prophet about the God of Israel, and about His will and plans for His people through the coming Messiah. Because many Jews remained in Babylon after the exile and intermarried with the people of the east, it is likely that Jewish messianic influence remained strong in that region even until New Testament times. So the Magi who visited Jesus probably travelled from somewhere near Babylon (in their day Parthia) and followed a similar route to Palestine as Abraham did many years before.

Symbol of Rome?

“Babylon” is also mentioned in the New Testament. Peter’s greetings at the end of his first letter include: “She who is in Babylon, chosen together with you, sends you her greetings, and so does my son Mark” (1 Pt. 5:13). “She” could refer to an individual woman or to a church with whom Peter is staying. According to the NET, “Most scholars understand Babylon here to be a figurative reference to Rome. Although in the Old Testament the city of Babylon in Mesopotamia was the seat of tremendous power (2 Ki. 24-25; Isa. 39; Jer. 25), by the time of the New Testament what was left was an insignificant town, and there is no tradition in Christian history that Peter ever visited there. On the other hand, Christian tradition connects Peter with the church in Rome, and many interpreters think other references to Babylon in Revelation refer to Rome as well (Rev. 14:8; 16:19; 17:5; 18:2, 10, 21). Thus it is likely Peter was referring to Rome here”. Also, Peter was in Rome in the final years of his life.

Peter may have used “Babylon” as a symbol for the city of Rome in order to protect the Christians in Asia Minor from prosecution. Nero was the Roman Emperor when this letter was written in about AD 62. It’s interesting to note that John Mark was in Rome with Paul in about AD 60 (Col. 4:10), which is consistent with him being in Rome with Peter when this letter was written. So it seems that in this instance Peter probably used a metaphor to describe Rome as being like Babylon.

Just as ancient Babylon had oppressed the Jewish exiles, the Roman Empire was persecuting the Christians that lived in Rome. It also invaded Jerusalem in AD 70, burned the temple and dispersed the Jews from their homeland. So there are similarities between Babylon and the Roman Empire.

What about the references to “Babylon” written in about AD 95 in Revelation (14:8, 16:19; 17:5; 18:1, 2, 10, 21)? According to the Futuristic interpretation of Revelation, its structure is outlined in 1:19. “What will take place later” (after AD 95 and still future) is given in 4:1 – 22:5. This includes aspects of the tribulation (Rev. 6:1-18:24) between the rapture (when all Christians are taken to heaven) and the second coming of Christ (after which Christ rules on earth for 1,000 years). The events of the tribulation are designed to bring Israel back to God.

“Babylon” in Revelation

Babylon is mentioned in the judgement associated with the battle of Armageddon (Rev. 16:13-21). The context is the second coming of Christ at the end of the great tribulation. It doesn’t relate to the true church because all believers are taken to be with the Lord at the rapture. The fall of Babylon is also mentioned in Revelation 14:8 and more details are given in chapters 17-18. Chapter 17 is the religious fall of Babylon and chapter 18 the political fall of Babylon. Babylon stands for a global system of religion in chapter 17 and a global system of government and commerce in chapter 18.

Revelation 17-18 is apocalyptic literature. Ancient apocalyptic writings were filled with visions that revealed hidden truths in figurative language for the purpose of assuring persecuted people of the goodness of God’s ways. For example, Ezekiel 37-39 and Daniel 7-12 were messages to the Jews who were devastated after their defeat and exile by the Babylonians.

“Babylon” is symbolised as a prostitute riding upon a scarlet beast. Her name is “Babylon the great – the mother of prostitutes – and of the abominations of the earth” (Rev. 17:5-6). She also commits spiritual adultery (Rev. 14:8). In the old Testament, “prostitution” and “adultery” were used symbolically to describe God’s people when they followed the idols of other nations instead of following the true God (Ezek. 16:26-32; 23:1-48). So Babylon the great is a spiritual adulterer and a prostitute; an apostate religion. Grant Richison calls her a “worldwide ecumenical religion”, a super-religion.

This apostate religion will be attractive and wealthy and comprised of unbelievers. It will blend different belief systems together. And she will cause the death of martyrs who will preach the gospel of the kingdom of God in the tribulation period (Rev. 11:1-10; 17:6; 18:24).

The woman rides a beast with seven heads that represent “seven hills on which the woman sits” (Rev. 17:7, 9). Some think that this refers to Rome, which has seven hills. But this passage is not dealing with a literal city or mountains but with kings (Rev. 17:10, 12).

The fall of Babylon is predicted as being God’s judgment. The global systems of religion, government and commerce think they are invincible. But they will receive what they have done to others (Rev. 18:5-6, 20). This is a principle that God uses in “the day of the Lord” (Obad. 1:15). Babylon is also guilty of pride, idolatry, and demon possession (Rev. 18:2, 7). And it’s clear that the global systems of religion, government and commerce are based on materialism and humanism.

Lessons for us

So the story behind Babylon stretches from about 4,200 years ago to the coming tribulation between the rapture and the second coming of Christ. Babylon is opposite to Zion. Babylon was a wicked place (where people rebelled against God), while Zion was a holy place (where God lived).

It reminds us that:
– God kept His promises to Israel. The law said that if they disobeyed God and followed idols, they would be expelled from Palestine (Dt. 4:25-28; 28:62-65; 30:1-3). And that’s what happened. Likewise, God will keep His promises given to us in the New Testament.
– God is sovereign over all the events in human history. He is powerful (source of different languages and different nations; and caused the rise and fall of nations). And He uses who He wills to achieve His purposes. He used a pagan nation to punish Judah.
– God judged the wickedness of Babylon. Likewise, in the future God will judge all evil and wickedness.
– Apostate religion is doomed. God wants us to separate from apostate religion.
– Materialism and humanism is doomed. God wants us to separate from materialism and humanism.

References
Steven Merrill (2005) “Nimrod. Darkness in the cradle of civilization”. Diakonoa Publishing. Greenboro, North Carolina, USA.
Grant Richison. Commentary on the book of Revelation.

Written, February 2017; Edited January 2019

Also see other articles on places in the Bible:
Bethlehem, God’s solution to our crises
Gehenna – Where’s hell?
Where’s Zion?
Lessons from Egypt
Lessons from Sodom
Massacres and miracles in Jericho
Rebellion and deception at Samaria


Jeremiah’s prophecies fulfilled

Melb cup 2015 400pxThe Melbourne Cup, a popular Australian horse race, was held today. Just before the race, the news media showed predictions of the first five horses, which were based on betting information. But these horses came 13th, 20th, 4th, 22nd and 11th respectively, and the race was won by an outsider! So the predictions were wrong! This shows how difficult it is to predict the future. In this post we see that Jeremiah was a prophet to whom God revealed the future.

Jeremiah was an Israelite prophet who was born about 650 BC and preached for about 40 years (626 BC to 586 BC). God used prophets to send messages to the Israelites and many of these messages are included in the Old Testament of the Bible. In this article we are looking at the final chapter of the book of Jeremiah, chapter 52.

Context

The previous 51 chapters have described Jeremiah’s call to be a prophet (Ch 1), his messages to Judah (Ch 2-35), his sufferings and persecution (Ch. 36-38), the fall of Jerusalem and its aftermath (Ch. 39-45) and his messages to other nations (Ch 46-51).

Jeremiah warning 400pxHis messages are mainly about four topics (see diagram): people’s sinfulness; God’s punishment for this sinfulness; and two responses. Firstly, if people repent, the punishment is delayed and deliverance/restoration is possible. And secondly, if people don’t repent, then punishment is inevitable. In particular, he reminds Judah of their disobedience and rebellion demonstrated by their ongoing idolatry.

Chapter 52 follows a message to Babylon in chapters 50-51, which was read out aloud to the inhabitants of Babylon. It predicted the invasion of Babylon by an army, which was fulfilled in 539 BC by the Medes and Persians.

What more can Jeremiah say? Nothing! At the end of Chapter 51 it says “The words of Jeremiah end here” (NIV). This looks like a scribal note saying that chapter 52 was written or compiled by someone else. No one knows exactly who. Was it Baruch? Was it Ezra? Or another compiler of the book of Jeremiah?

Jeremiah isn’t mentioned in chapter 52. Instead the focus in on the fate of Jerusalem and its inhabitants. Also, it includes an event in Babylon that Jeremiah wouldn’t have been aware of because he would have either been elderly (almost 90 years of age) or dead, and well away in Egypt.

Content

There are two main sections in chapter 52: the fall of Jerusalem (v.1-30), and Jehoiachin released (v.31-34).

There are 5 paragraphs about the fall of Jerusalem and its aftermath: Zedekiah captured (v.1-11), Jerusalem destroyed (v.12-16), temple articles taken (v.17-23), execution of leading citizens (v.24-27a), and Jewish prisoners taken into exile (v. 27b-30).

The fall of Jerusalem isn’t in chronological order. The most likely sequence of events is: city walls breached (v.7), prisoners taken (v.8-11, 15-16, 24-27a), plunder removed (v.17-23), and city destroyed (v.12-14).

Most of the content in chapter 52 isn’t unique; it’s repeated elsewhere in the Bible. Verses 4-27 are summarised in 39:1-10. Why is it repeated with more detail? The extra information is: the Babylonians took all the gold, silver and bronze from the temple; and the execution of 74 senior officials. It seems to show the fulfilment of the many predictions made by Jeremiah.

Verses 1-27, 31-34 are virtually the same as 2 Kings 24:18 – 25:21, 27-30. So Jeremiah has the same ending as 2 Kings! Again, this material is probably included here because it is a record of the fulfilment of Jeremiah’s prophesies. There are many references in Jeremiah 52 to earlier passages of the book that confirm the prophet’s predictions. It enables one to read his prophecies and their fulfilment in the same scroll or book.

The writers of 2 Kings and Jeremiah 52 probably had access to the same written sources. According to the NIV Study Bible, it’s unlikely they copied from each other since each has peculiarities characteristic of the book they conclude. In a few passages, Jeremiah is fuller than Kings. The minor differences in the two accounts may be due to either copy errors (v.12, 22, 25) or to different ways of reckoning (counting or measuring). As this chapter is much closer to the 2 Kings account than to Jeremiah 39, this is consistent with it being added by an editor or compiler and not written by Jeremiah.

Zedekiah captured (v.1-11)

This is the same account as in 2 Kings 24:18 – 25:7. King Zedekiah was another wicked king. After he rebelled against the king of Babylon, the Babylonians besieged Jerusalem for 18 months from 588 BC. When the food ran out the city wall was breached, and the Judean army escaped. But Zedekiah was captured and taken to king Nebuchadnezzar. They killed his sons and then put out his eyes and took him to Babylon where he was a prisoner until he died. So Zedekiah was punished when Jerusalem was destroyed. Note that Zedekiah could have prevented the destruction of Jerusalem if he had listened to Jeremiah (Jer. 38:14-28).

Jerusalem destroyed (v.12-16)

This is the same account as in 2 Kings 25:8-12. The Babylonians burned all the houses in Jerusalem including the temple, which was about 424 years old. They pulled down the city walls and took more prisoners, leaving only the poorest to work the vineyards and fields. The upper class had been taken into exile with king Jehoiachin in 597 BC. They destroyed the city to make it beyond repair.

Temple articles taken (v.17-23)

This is a similar account to 2 Kings 25:13-17, but with more detail of the pillars. The Babylonians took to Babylon all the gold, silver and bronze from the temple as plunder. The items taken are listed and described. It was robbery of valuable items. But in the mind of the Babylonians, it also signified a victory of the Babylonian gods over the God of Israel.

Execution of leading citizens (v.24-27a)

This is the same account as in 2 Kings 25:18-21a. 74 senior officials and “people of the land” (probably the landed gentry) are taken to king Nebuchadnezzar and executed. The Babylonians ruthlessly destroy the influential people and potential leaders.

Jewish prisoners taken into exile (v. 27b-30)

This account isn’t matched in 2 Kings, but some numbers are given there of the people deported. There were four main phases of deportation of prisoners of war to Babylon (605 BC, 598 BC, 587 BC, and 582 BC). The Hebrew word heglah (Strongs #1540), translated “exile”, is mentioned twice (v.28, 30). It says that 4,600 people went into exile as prisoners. This is different to the 10,000 mentioned in 2 Kings 24:14. Maybe the lower number is male adults.

So because they continually disobeyed God, the kingdom of Judah was destroyed. The land was conquered and the people killed or deported to Babylon. Perhaps 20,000 Jews were taken into captivity. This is the fulfilment of Jeremiah’s predictions.

Jehoiachin released (v.31-34)

This is the same account as in 2 Kings 25:27-30. King Jehoiachin was exiled in 597 BC and released in 561 BC when Awel-Marduk replaced Nebuchadnezzar as king of Babylon. So, after 37 years in prison, Jehoiachin was released to live in Babylon. He was given a position of honor above the other vassal kings in Babylon. Apparently it was a common practice for a victorious king to keep captive kings at his court as a reminder of his victories and as a warning to the subjects of that king not to rebel.

As it includes this incident in 561 AD, the book of Jeremiah must have been finalised after this date. But Jeremiah would have finished his part when he was taken to Egypt 20-25 years before this date (Ch 44).

The endings of 2 Kings (25:27-30) and Jeremiah 52:31-34) are the same! They have a happy ending! Jehoiachin was released to eat at the king’s table. The Jews aren’t destroyed or the line of David. And Jehoiachin is included in Joseph’s genealogy (Mt. 1:11-12).

Why was it written?

Why is this chapter in the book of Jeremiah? It serves the following three purposes.

First to show that Jeremiah’s predictions were fulfilled. Nearly every verse in this chapter is a fulfilled prophecy. Jeremiah was vindicated. He was right and the false prophets were wrong. It proves that he was a true prophet of God (Dt. 18:21-22).

Second it contrasts the fate of king Zedekiah and his nephew king Jehoiachin. Zedekiah died in prison (v.11), while Jehoaichin was released and ate regularly with the king of Babylon. So all wasn’t lost.

Third it provides a glimmer of hope at the end. Some were saved in captivity, including the line of David. Is this a hint of better days ahead?

Themes

Three themes can be identified in chapter 52.

The predictions made by a true prophet are fulfilled. It happened like Jeremiah predicted.

God punishes sinfulness. Continual sin by the people of Judah led to the destruction of their civilization and their deportation to a foreign land. “It was because of the Lord’s anger that all this happened to Jerusalem and Judah, and in the end He thrust them from His presence” (v.3). The sin led to God’s anger, which was expressed in the punishment. That’s what Jeremiah was warning them about.

God always offers hope. Although it looked like the end, they weren’t obliterated. Because they weren’t all destroyed, and the line of David was preserved, there was a glimmer of hope for the future. It would have helped the exiles believe Jeremiah’s prediction that they would be able to return after 70 years of captivity (25:11; 29:10-14).

Questions that arise

Jehoiachin seems to be criticized in Chapter 22, which is headed “Judgment against wicked kings”, but he is rewarded in Chapter 52. This doesn’t seem to be consistent. As Jeremiah predicted, Jehoiachin died in Babylon without going back to Judah (22:24-27). But who does 22:30 apply to? It says, “none of his offspring will prosper; none will sit on the throne of David, or rule anymore in Judah”. It follows a paragraph on Jehoiachin (22:24-28), but seems to be part of an address to Zedekiah (Ch 21-22 and maybe further). One commentator thinks that along with 22:1-9 it applies to Zedekiah. But maybe it can apply to either.

Is there a glimmer of hope in chapter 52 or not? The future seems uncertain. Will the glimmer of hope come to anything? Immigrants are usually assimilated into their new nation within a few generations by intermarriage. In Ezra and Nehemiah we see how some returned to their homeland 70 years later.

Application

What does it mean to us today? Let’s look at each of the themes.

The predictions made by a true prophet are fulfilled. Because Jeremiah’s predictions about the Babylonian conquest were fulfilled, those that haven’t yet been fulfilled will be fulfilled in future. So the predictions of national unity and restoration for Israel will be fulfilled in a coming day (Rom. 11).

Because God’s prophets in the Old Testament were true prophets, the writers of the New Testament were also true prophets and all they wrote is true. So the promises made to Christians in the New Testament will be fulfilled. They are reliable. They can be trusted.

God punishes sinfulness. The conquest of Jerusalem and the Jewish exile were God’s punishment for their sinfulness. This truth still applies today. God still punishes sinfulness: “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23NLT). Sin has consequences in this life and afterwards if we haven’t accepted God’s gift of salvation. We reap what we sow (Gal. 6:7). We harvest what we plant. But the outcome isn’t always bad because a major loss can shock people into returning to the Lord.

God always offers hope. Even though it seems that ungodliness is prevalent, some are still faithful to God. After facing opposition in Corinth, Paul was told “Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city” (Acts 18:9-10). There are always some people who are faithful to God.

Looking ahead. Although life was difficult after the fall of Jerusalem, the Jews who knew Scripture could look forward to the coming of their Messiah. Likewise, although life is difficult for Christians today, we who know Scripture can look forward to the Lord’s second coming.

Written, November 2015


How to survive tough times

Fire damage - Oct 2013Recently we saw the terror and devastation of bush fires in the Blue Mountains of Australia. It was a tough time for those in the path of the fire. They didn’t get much warning and had to escape for their lives. Afterwards, some returned to see their house in ruins. They searched through the rubble to recover what they could. What if our house and belongings are destroyed in a fire?

How do we respond when our dreams are shattered? When our relationships break down? When our health is threatened? Or when we are overcome by the emptiness of loneliness? Do we plunge into depression, despair and discouragement when there is disappointment, stress or tragedy? What can help us get through tough times?

Some say “when the going gets tough, the tough get going”. But we will see that this is not God’s way. Today we are looking at how to survive tough times. We will see from Ezekiel’s vision that, because God will rescue us, we can survive tough times (Ezek. 37:1-14).

In particular, so we can survive tough times we will determine: Who will God rescue? How will God rescue? And when will God rescue?

Context

Ezekiel was a Jew captive in Babylon. The destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 586 BC was a tragedy for the Jews. Everything they lived for was gone and the Babylonian gods had triumphed over their God. They were devastated. The Bible says they had bitter memories in Babylon, “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion” (Ps. 137:1-4NIV). They could no longer sing the songs of Jerusalem or play their musical instruments. Jeremiah described their misery; “Streams of tears flow from my eyes because my people are destroyed” (Lam. 3:48).

The verses before the vision say they were scattered and in exile because of their murder and idolatry (36:16-21) and they also predict Israel’s restoration (36:22-38). The Jews will return to Israel from other countries. There will be a great spiritual revival and prosperity and other people will acknowledge God. God does the restoration, which is associated with their repentance. The words “I will”, are mentioned 15 times in 15 verses. He will give them a new heart, a new spirit and forgive their sins.

The verses after the vision also predict Israel’s restoration (37:15-28). The Jews from both Israel and Judah will return to Israel from other countries. They will have one king, “my servant David”, who is Jesus Christ, a descendant of David. They will live as God’s people and there will be no more idolatry. The result is that once again God will be their God and they will be His people (37:27).

The vision of the dry bones is about the restoration and revival of the Jewish nation because it’s mentioned both before and after the vision. After they were plundered, scattered and captured it looked like the end of the Jews. It was a hopeless situation. But God said no; I will intervene.

valley of dry bones croppedWho will God rescue?

Ezekiel’s vision is a valley full of dry bones. They had been dead a long time. There was no life in them. Then God brings them back to life, first as a body lying on the ground and then as a body with breath that stands up. God says, “these bones are the people of Israel” and He calls them “my people” (v.11). They had been slain in battle and they rose as a vast army (v.9-10). It’s a picture of Israel’s army slain by the Babylonians.

What else do the dry bones symbolise? In the vision they say “our hope is gone, we are cut off” (v.11). The dry bones illustrate the hopelessness of the Jews in Babylon. They are over 1,000 km from their homeland and their capital city and temple has been destroyed. Although they are God’s special people they are spiritually dead with nothing to live for. Every day they are reminded of the demise of their nation and the Babylonian victory. They are captive in a foreign land with a foreign language (Jer. 5:15).

So, who will God rescue? His people. They will be rescued because they are God’s people, not because of anything else that they had done. Because of this promise they can survive tough times.

Hostages Tehran 1980 2In 1980, 52 Americans were hostages in the US Embassy in Tehran in Iran for 444 days. They were treated cruelly, beaten, placed in solitary confinement and threatened with execution. An American military operation planned to rescue them, but this was aborted after a helicopter crashed into a transport aircraft. In tough times we can feel like a hostage in a foreign land in a hopeless situation. It’s not unusual.

Christians are the people of God today (1 Pt. 2:9-10). The Bible says we are citizens of heaven (Phil. 3:20). And we will also be rescued because we are God’s people, not because of anything we have done. Like the Jews in Babylon, because of this promise we can survive tough times.

Now we know who God will rescue. But how will he rescue them?

How will God rescue?

In Ezekiel’s vision, God says how it will happen;“I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life” (v.5-6). Also, “ I will bring you back to the land of Israel … I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land (v.12-14). Notice that “I will” is mentioned 5 times. So it’s all God’s doing, they had no part in it. They didn’t deserve it. He rescues them when they are in a seemingly hopeless situation and unable to rescue themselves. He’s a God of grace. God does the restoration and brings them to repentance after Ezekiel called them to repent (33:11; 36:31).

In the rescue they would return to their homeland and there would be a spiritual revival. God used an illustration to help them understand it. He said, “I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them” (v.12). The rescue will be like a resurrection, where a dead body comes back to life. It’s a radical change, from exile to their homeland and from spiritual death to spiritual life. The prospect of the rescue gave them encouragement and strength to endure the tough times.

It’s all part of the big picture in the Bible of God rescuing people from their sinful ways. Ever since the time of Adam and Eve, people are spiritually dead. At that time, God promised that He would defeat Satan. Since then He has carried out His rescue plan. For example, He rescued the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. After the times of king David, God promised the Israelites that a Messiah would come to lead them. He was the servant-king predicted by Isaiah (Is. 42, 49, 50, 52-53). The New Testament shows that Jesus was this Suffering Servant (Mt. 12:14-21). This shows why God will rescue. It’s because it’s His main plan for humanity and the universe. To restore it to be like He made it in the beginning. It’s part of His character. He’s a rescuing God.

God also promises that Christians will return to their homeland (Jn. 14:1-3; Phil. 3:20-21). But our home is not Jerusalem, but heavenly Zion (Heb. 12:22-24). This rescue will include resurrection, when the dead come back to life (1 Cor. 15:50-55). And it won’t be a botched rescue, because it will be by the same power that raised Jesus Christ from the dead. In this way, Christ is our Rescuer and Savior. This promise helps us survive tough times.

What about the promise of spiritual revival? When a person turns around to follow Jesus, they undergo a spiritual revival. They are now “in Christ”, a new creation and indwelt by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19; 2 Cor. 5:17). Because of their spiritual revival, Christians can survive tough times (1 Cor. 10:13).

Now we know who God will rescue and how he will do it. But when will He rescue His people?

When will God rescue?

In Ezekiel’s vision, God says when it will happen, “I will bring you back to the land of Israel …  I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land (v.12-14). It’s when they return to their homeland and are spiritually revived. This happened in part when some returned to Israel in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah. God used the Persian king Cyrus to defeat the Babylonians and allow these Jews to return to Jerusalem (Is. 45:1-8).

But the full extent of their restoration is yet to come; when their land will be like the garden of Eden (36:35), when all the 12 tribes will be united (37:15-22), and when their king will once again be a descendant of David (37:24-23). So there was a partial rescue after the exile, but their complete rescue is yet to come. Maybe this was illustrated in the vision when the bones came to life in two stages.

Mine rescue Beaconsfield 2In 2006, two miners were rescued from a gold mine in Beaconsfield in Tasmania after being trapped underground for 14 days. When we go through tough times, we can feel trapped in a dark place with no way out.  There were two stages to their rescue. First a 90mm hole was drilled to give them food, fresh water and for communication. Second a 1m hole was drilled to enable some miners to crawl in and get them out. In the first stage they were sustained. In the second stage they were released.

Likewise there are two stages to our rescue. First, through God’s power when we chose to turn around and follow Jesus, we are rescued spiritually. We change from being spiritually dead to being spiritually alive. Second, through God’s power when we die, our spirits go to be with the Lord and when Christ returns our bodies will be resurrected and changed (1 Cor. 15:50-55). So the two stages of our rescue are a spiritual revival, which sustains us in tough times; followed by a homecoming, which releases us from the tough times. At present we are half way. We can look back to stage one and ahead to stage two.

So, because through Christ’s death and resurrection Christians have spiritual life which sustains us, we can survive tough times. And because of the promise of being with the Lord and released, we can survive tough times. Clearly we can only survive tough times, in God’s power.

If you lack this power to get through tough times, then this is a reason to turn your life around to follow Jesus. The saying “when the going gets tough, the tough get going” is wrong because we don’t need to toughen up and work hard to survive tough times. Instead, let’s rely on God’s saving power in Christ and His sustaining power in the Holy Spirit.

It would be wrong to use Ezekiel’s vision to claim that God will remove our tough times on earth. Ezekiel probably died in Babylon before the partial return to the homeland (he would have been ~85 years of age if still alive when the first exiles returned to Judah under Zerubbabel in 538 BC). Even though he didn’t reach stage 1 of the rescue, the promise helped him endure the tough times. Recently I spoke to a believer struggling with a chronic disease. He felt he had nothing to live for. He was disappointed in God, saying, “What’s God doing about it? It would be a great witness if I was healed”. In the Bible Abraham told the rich man in Hades, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” (Lk. 16:29-31). People are not convinced by miracles. How often do we pray for a miracle, when God promises survival through tough times on earth, not removal of these tough times? After all, we are in stage 1 of the rescue, not stage 2.

Because God will rescue us, we can survive tough times

So let’s remember the vision of the dry bones that came back to life. When they were doing it tough in Babylon in the darkest period of their history, God gave the Jews comfort and strength. Because He promised to rescue them, they survived the tough times. Some of them returned to Israel and Christ was born about 500 years later. After another 2,000 years more Jews have returned to Israel and it is a nation once again. And God has promised there will be a spiritual revival when they recognise Christ as their Messiah in a coming day.

Because God is a rescuer, we can survive tough times. We have seen:
– Who He rescues: His people. In future, all believers will be fully rescued from their tough times.
– How He rescues: by spiritual revival and bringing us home.
– And when He rescues: partially now and fully later.
He has already rescued us and promises to rescue us even more in the future. This gives us encouragement and strength. Remember this promise when you are going through tough times.

Because we know that God will rescue us, we can survive tough times.

Written, November 2013


The Day of the Lord. Part 1: The past

The Bible teaches that God rules over everything—He’s the Boss. He is also holy, good, loving and just. Yet we live in a world where there is much suffering and evil and God’s justice and His other attributes are not evident to all. People ask, if there is a God, “Why doesn’t He do something about it?”. Well, He will.

In this article we will look at a major topic of Scripture that few Christians understand—“the day of the Lord”. This phrase occurs at least 20 times in the Bible between Isaiah and Revelation; it’s always in a prophetic passage that addresses the future.

Old Testament Prophecies

God made promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and their descendants. These were physical and spiritual blessings which God will always keep. They included things such as prominence, prosperity and the promised land. However, whether the Jews experienced these promises at a particular time depended on their obedience to God’s laws. When they obeyed, they would prosper “in the land He has given you” (Deut. 28:1-14). When they disobeyed they would be punished and driven out of the promised land (Deut. 28:15-68; 29:1-29). If they turned back to the Lord, then the blessings would resume and they would return to the promised land (Deut. 30:1-20).

According to Scripture, after Abraham’s time there were two categories of people: Jews (God’s chosen people) and Gentiles (those who were not Jews). The 17 books on prophecy in the Old Testament are addressed to the Jews. The phrase the “day of the Lord” occurs in the prophetic books between Amos (which was written earlier than Isaiah) and Malachi (see timeline). In this period the Babylonians attacked Jerusalem in about 586 BC and the Jews were captured and scattered to other nations.

The themes addressed by the Jewish prophets (Isaiah to Malachi) that are relevant to our topic include:

  • The sin and failure of God’s chosen people
  • A call to repentance
  • God’s judgement on them if they didn’t repent, which included captivity and being dispersed among other nations
  • God’s judgement on the surrounding nations
  • The coming Messiah and His rejection and power and glory. They didn’t realize that there would be two comings of Christ with the church period between these comings.
  • The restoration of God’s chosen people, which included returning to the promised land
  • The Messiah’s universal reign

Let’s look at what some of the passages that mention the “day of the Lord” say:

“Wail, for the day of the LORD is near; it will come like destruction from the Almighty” (Isa. 13:6).

“See, the day of the LORD is coming—a cruel day, with wrath and fierce anger—to make the land desolate and destroy the sinners within it” (Isa. 13:9).

“For the day is near, the day of the LORD is near—a day of clouds, a time of doom for the nations (Ezek. 30:3).

“The LORD thunders at the head of His army; His forces are beyond number, and mighty is the army that obeys His command. The day of the LORD is great; it is dreadful. Who can endure it?” (Joel 2:11).

“I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and billows of smoke.  The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD” (Joel 2:30-31).

“The great day of the LORD is near—near and coming quickly. The cry on the day of the LORD is bitter, the Mighty Warrior shouts His battle cry. That day will be a day of wrath—a day of distress and anguish, a day of trouble and ruin, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness—a day of trumpet and battle cry against the fortified cities and against the corner towers. I will bring distress on all people and they will grope about like those who are blind, because they have sinned against the LORD. Their blood will be poured out like dust and their entrails like dung. Neither their silver nor their gold will be able to save them on the day of the Lord’s wrath. In the fire of His jealousy the whole world will be consumed, for He will make a sudden end of all who live in the earth” (Zeph. 1:14-18).

The “day of the Lord” refers to any time when God puts down evil and rebellion. In these cases it was referring to immediate judgements (such as their captivity in Babylon) and those that had not yet been fulfilled (which we will look at in Part 2 of this series). In particular it refers to a time of persecution and trials for the Jews—Jeremiah called it a time of trouble for Jacob (or Jacob’s trouble; Jer. 30:7).

The law of double reference helps to understand some of these Old Testament prophecies—some of them had both an immediate partial fulfilment and a distant complete fulfilment. Some of the Jewish prophecies about the “day of the Lord” were fulfilled when Jerusalem was conquered by the Babylonians in 586 B.C. It happened like they said. This was a “day of the Lord” for the Jews. But Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi prophesied about the “day of the Lord” after the captivity (see the Old Testament timeline).

The Old Testament Jewish prophets had two main messages about the future: God’s judgement (the “day of the Lord”) and God’s blessing—the Messiah will come and lead their nation.

The Fall of Jerusalem

Now we move ahead by over 400 years in time (see timeline). In the week before His death, the Lord prophesied about great tribulation (“pressure” or suffering or distress) (Mt 24:21-22) and the return of the Lord to the earth in great power (v.29-31) that is associated with the day of the Lord.

“As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of His disciples said to Him, “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!” (Mk. 13:1). Apparently, Herod’s Temple was ten stories high and adorned with gold, silver, and other precious items. But Jesus predicted that is would be reduced to rubble, with not one stone left on another: “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down” (Mk. 13:2).

Furthermore, “When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, let those in the city get out, and let those in the country not enter the city. For this is the time of punishment in fulfilment of all that has been written. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! There will be great distress in the land and wrath against this people. They will fall by the sword and will be taken as prisoners to all the nations. Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled” (Lk. 21:20-24).

In AD 70, it happened like He said—the ungodly Jews were scattered. The sign of this was armies of the Roman Empire around Jerusalem. According to the Bible, Jerusalem will remain under Gentile control until the Lord returns to the earth.

Some of the Jewish and Christ’s prophecies about the “day of the Lord” were fulfilled when Jerusalem was conquered by the Romans in AD 70. This was a “day of the Lord” for the Jews. However, it is clear from the Lord’s Olivet discourse (Mt 24, 25; Mk 13; Lk 21), that at this time there were still unfulfilled prophecies about the “day of the Lord”. Similar prophecies are also given in 1&2 Thessalonians and Revelation, which was written after AD70 (see timeline).

The day of Pentecost

The day of Pentecost is an example of the law of double reference.

“In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy. I will show wonders in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and billows of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord. And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Act 2:17-21).

Here Paul applies a prophecy of Joel (Joel 2:28-32) to the day of Pentecost. Joel’s prophecy was given to Jews and “Your sons and daughters”, which meant that the prophecy applied to descendants of the Jews.  We will see in Part 2 of this series that the complete fulfilment of Joel’s prophecy is when the Lord returns to the earth in great power and glory (v.30-31; 19-20) and the faithful of that time will be rescued to go into the Millennium (v.32; v.21). The gift of the Holy Spirit will be given to all the faithful, not just the chosen few as was the case in Joel’s time—they will receive prophetic messages; which will be revealed by dreams and visions (v.28-29; v.17-18).

How does this apply to the day of Pentecost? Well, those who were “filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:4), were all Jews (Acts 2:22). The Holy Spirit indwelt all believers on that day, not just the chosen few as had been the case beforehand. Also, they were given prophetic messages (God had used dreams and visions to bring messages to the Old Testament prophets). So, on the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit was active, as He will be in the Millennium.

After the day of Pentecost, there were three categories of people: Jews, Gentiles and the Church: “Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God” (1 Cor. 10:32). The promises given to the Jews are primarily earthly, and those given to the church are primarily heavenly. When interpreting Scripture, we need to be careful to note who is being addressed: the Jews or the Church.

Summary

The “day of the Lord” is a theme that is particularly applied to the Jews and their enemies in the prophetic Scriptures from Amos and Isaiah to Revelation. The “day of the Lord” is a period of time when God intervenes in the world, primarily for judgement. Some of the prophecies concerning the “day of the Lord” concerned the Jewish captivity in Babylon and the siege of Jerusalem by the Romans. As these prophecies all came true, there is no reason to doubt that the remaining prophecies about the “day of the Lord” will also come true. This gives us confidence in the prophetic Scriptures yet to be fulfilled.

Written, May 2007

See the other article in this series:
The Day of the Lord. Part 2: The future


Was James the Senior Pastor of the church at Jerusalem?

Before the resurrection, James, the brother of Jesus, didn’t believe that Christ was divine, but he believed afterwards (Mt. 13:55; Jn. 7:5; Acts 1:14). The fact that the resurrected Lord appeared to James may have been instrumental in his conversion (1 Cor. 15:7). Some study Bibles and Bible dictionaries state that James became the head of the Jewish Christian church at Jerusalem (Acts 12:17; 15:13-21; 21:18; Gal. 2:9-12). Let’s look at what the bible says.

When Peter escaped from prison he went to Mary’s house, where some were praying for his release. He told them how the Lord had brought him out of prison. Then he requested that they give the news to James and other believers (Acts 12:16-17). When Paul visited Jerusalem after his conversion, the only apostles he saw were Peter and James (Gal. 1:18-19). During a later visit to Jerusalem, a meeting was arranged with James and all the elders (Acts 21:18). Paul referred to James, Peter and John as pillars of the church at Jerusalem (Gal. 2:9). Paul also said that when he was in Antioch, Peter stopped eating with Gentiles after some people came from James in Jerusalem (Gal. 2:12). But their claim to represent James was not true (Acts 15:24).

The topic of whether the Gentiles must be circumcised to be saved was discussed among the apostles and elders of the church at Jerusalem (Acts 15:12-21). After much discussion, Peter made a statement and afterwards James summed up the situation and supported it with a quotation from Amos 9:11-12. The church agreed with James and implemented his recommendation. Also, it has been pointed put that on this occasion the issue was brought to “the apostles and elders” and not to James and the resultant letter was written on behalf of “the apostles and elders” and not James (Acts 15:2, 23) (comment by Mike Hosey, August 2013).

Clearly, James was prominent among the elders of the church at Jerusalem, as was Peter prominent among the apostles. It is important to distinguish between “offices” and “gifts.” The two main offices in New Testament churches were those of “elders” and “deacons” (1 Tim. 3:1-13). All elders must be able to teach and shepherd the flock as pastors, but each will have spiritual gifts to varying degrees (1 Tim. 3:2; 1 Pet. 5:2-3). Prominent elders, whose work in preaching and teaching precludes employment to support their families, are worthy of “double honor” or financial support (1 Tim. 5:17-18).

However, there is no evidence that James had any rank or title above the other elders. They were not his subordinates. They were not his staff or his assistants. He wasn’t the church’s “senior” pastor. There is no biblical evidence that proves that James was the head of the church at Jerusalem.

This finding is consistent with the pattern of shared leadership in New Testament churches. It seems as though the believers at Jerusalem were led first by the apostles, and then elders were added to the leadership team (Acts 6:2; 11:30; 15:2, 4, 6, 22-23; 16:4). In fact, Peter and John referred to themselves as elders (1 Pet. 5:1; 2 Jn. 1; 3 Jn. 1). Judas (Barsabbas) and Silas were other elders in the church at Jerusalem (Acts 15:22).

I am not aware of any example of a prominent leader at any church mentioned in the New Testament, except for Diotrephes who wanted “preeminence” and was described as doing evil (3 Jn. 9-11). For example, there were five prophets and teachers, which would have comprised the eldership team, at Antioch – Barnabas, Simeon (called Niger), Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen and Saul (Acts 13:1). Teams of elders also led the churches in Lystra, Iconium, Pisidian Antioch, Perga, Ephesus, Philippi and Crete (Acts 14:21-24; 20:17; Phil. 1:1; Tit. 1:5).

Other instances of shared leadership in the New Testament include the fact that Jesus trained 12 apostles to establish the Church, and seven men (the precursors of deacons) were appointed to care for the needs of the Jewish widows (Acts 6:1-6). In fact, there is no evidence in Scripture of a hierarchy of authority among the apostles, the church elders or the church deacons. There is no evidence in Scripture of senior pastors of churches. Instead the New Testament pattern is always shared leadership.

Published, April 2011