Archive for the ‘God’ Category

(52) This amazed everyone and they praised God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!” – Mark 2:12

November 12, 2013

After being baptised, Jesus went into the desert for forty days to fast and pray and prepare for preaching and teaching in public. Luke and Matthew describe how he was tempted by Satan. Jesus dealt with all his temptations in the same way, by quoting from the Old Testament scriptures. This demonstrated the power of the words he quoted from Deuteronomy, “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Deuteronomy 8:3 quoted in Matthew 4:4). It is good to know that we have access to the same method of resisting temptation as Jesus did.

When Jesus returned from the desert he started going round the region of Galilee – the Roman name for the northern part of Israel where Jesus grew up in the town of Nazareth – preaching that “The time has come, the kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15). Mark then gives us a quick-fire succession of events from Jesus’ early public life.

Jesus called disciples to follow him, starting with two pairs of brothers who were fishermen – Peter (originally known as Simon) and Andrew, and James and John – some of whom had been disciples of John the Baptist before meeting Jesus. Later we read that he called eight more to make twelve disciples, close companions that he shared with most closely.

Jesus’ teaching “amazed” the people “because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law” (Mark 1:22). There was just something about his grasp of the Old Testament scriptures and the way he spoke to the people that grabbed their attention.

His teaching drew crowds, including people who were sick and who were ‘possessed by evil spirits’. This group has the habit of noisily revealing who Jesus was which Jesus discouraged at this time. Jesus healed these people which gave even more reason for crowds to gather. Normal life became difficult for Jesus and his disciples. Mark tells us that while they were at Peter’s house preparing to eat the people brought all the sick and demon-possessed people to him and “the whole town gathered at the door, and Jesus healed many who had various diseases” (Mark 1:33-34). The people now had someone who was more popular than John the Baptist.

But Jesus did not let popularity drive his agenda. The morning after the crowds had gathered at the door Jesus got up very early and went out into the countryside to pray. Peter and the other disciples eventually tracked him down saying that “Everyone is looking for you!” (Mark 1:37). They were surprised when Jesus said that it was time to move on to other villages. Healings resulted in the word about Jesus spreading even more quickly which meant that Jesus had to keep out of the towns to avoid the crowds getting out of hand.

When he returned to the town of Capernaum, Jesus was confronted by a man who was paralysed. He forgave his sins and told him to pick up his mat and walk. When he did this the crowds were amazed, “and they praised God, saying, ‘We have never seen anything like this!’” (Mark 2:12). Jesus’ popularity also brought him to the attention of the religious authorities and they joined the crowds to listen to what Jesus said and see him work miracles. But they came with critical minds, looking for evidence to catch him out.

When Jesus heals a man with a shrivelled hand on the Sabbath the religious leaders see this as a violation of the fourth commandment, which prohibited work on the Sabbath, a clear case of putting the letter of the law above the needs of the individual. Jesus is angry with them, not only for their lack of compassion, but also for their hypocrisy. He pointed out to them that if they had a sheep that fell into a pit on the Sabbath they would work to get it out and a man is more valuable than a sheep. Despite this, the Pharisees decide that Jesus must be done away with so that social order and their place within it is maintained.

(51) You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased – Mark 1:11

November 11, 2013

Mark’s gospel is the shortest and has a fast pace. His uses the word ‘immediately’ over forty times as he jumps from scene to scene through Jesus’ life. It is traditionally thought that Peter, the leader of Jesus’ twelve disciples and a naturally impatient man, was involved in the writing. You can imagine him standing over Mark’s shoulder remembering events in rapid succession as Mark scribbled them down. Mark wrote especially for the Romans, maybe for the church in Rome, as he describes Jewish customs for the benefit of those who do not have a Jewish background.

Mark’s opening line is, “The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). The word good news is sometimes translated by the Old English word ‘gospel’ which is what the four accounts of Jesus’ life are known as. Mark, like the other three gospel writers, is simply recording the good news that Jesus is the promised Messiah, the Son of God.

Mark makes no reference to Jesus’ birth but starts with John the Baptist preaching in the wilderness by the Jordan River. He was a striking character who “wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt round his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey” (Mark 1:6). His message was striking too as he called people to repent, which means to change one’s mind and, by implication, one’s future behaviour, for the better. As a sign of their repentance he baptised them in the river, meaning that they were dipped or submerged in the water as a symbol of leaving their old ways behind them.

John’s message spread like wildfire and Mark tells us that “the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him” (Mark 1:5). John’s preaching clearly had a great impact and all four gospel writers record his work in preparing the way for Jesus as prophesied by Isaiah who talked about a messenger who would be “the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him’” (Isaiah 40:3 quoted in Mark 1:3).

Matthew and John tell us that Pharisees and Sadducees came to see John to check him out. The Pharisees were men who studied and taught the scriptures. During the exile, separated from the temple, they developed a strong belief in the importance of personal righteousness, but unfortunately they made this very prescriptive and set a standard that placed an intolerable burden on people’s lives. They ran the synagogues which had developed as places to worship during the exile, while the Sadducees managed the temple and focused on its rituals. They only accepted the books of Moses and rejected doctrines such as the resurrection – a point of difference from the Pharisees that both Jesus and Paul exploited.

John urged them to repent along with the people but they were too proud to accept John’s message and this made them unable to accept Jesus either. As Luke points out later, the people who had been baptised by John were able to accept his words, while the Pharisees and teachers of the law “rejected God’s purpose for themselves, because they had not been baptised by John” (Luke 7:29-30).

We do not know how long John preached before Jesus appeared but he was always clear that he was preparing them for someone greater than himself. When John saw Jesus join the crowds he pointed him out as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Jesus asked John to baptise him and as he did John saw, “heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased’” (Mark 1:10-11). Here we see the trinity together as God the Father and God the Holy Spirit endorsed Jesus, the Son of God, as he started his public work on earth.

As Jesus started preaching and teaching, John continued to preach and teach by the Jordan. A fearless man, he was not afraid to speak out against wrongdoing at any level and this included denouncing Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, for marrying his brother’s wife. Herod imprisoned him and then, in response to a request from his step daughter, had John beheaded – a tragic end for the man that did most to prepare for the coming of Jesus the Messiah.

(50) She gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger. – Luke 2:7

November 8, 2013

Luke gives a short account of the birth of Jesus. Joseph and Mary have to travel from their home town of Nazareth to Bethlehem, at least three days’ journey on foot or donkey, in order to register to pay taxes to Rome as decreed by Caesar Augustus. It is there that Mary gives birth to “her firstborn, a son” (Luke 2:7) who they name Jesus, meaning ‘The Lord saves’. The traditional interpretation that there was no room at the inn is probably based on a mistranslation of the word which is elsewhere translated as “guest room” (see Luke 22:11) and it is more likely that she gave birth in a house which, like many at that time, would have also housed animals at one end, so the manger acted as an emergency cot.

Luke then describes the appearance of angels to shepherds who were “keeping watch over their flocks at night” (Luke 2:8). The angels directed the terrified shepherds to the town where they find “Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger” (Luke 2:16). The noisy shepherds spread the news throughout the whole town which amazed the people.

Jerusalem was only about five miles from Bethlehem so after about six weeks they made the journey to the temple to present their firstborn to the Lord. By now they had got used to this scrap of flesh who cried and fed and needed changing just like any other baby and maybe they were wondering if he really was that special, but at the temple they receive two confirmations of who he is.

First Simeon, an old man who was “righteous and devout” (Luke 2:25) came and took the child in his arms and prayed that he was now ready to depart this world as he told the Lord that “my eyes have seen your salvation” (Luke 2:30). He prophesied that Jesus would be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles” (Luke 2:32), as well as causing division in Israel. He is followed by an old lady called Anna who gave thanks for Jesus and started to speak to those around “who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:38).

Matthew ignores the reasons for Jesus being born in Bethlehem but records the visit of ‘Magi’, or ‘wise men’ “from the East” (Matthew 2:1). (Magi is a Greek word, the plural of Magos, which was originally associated with Persian priests, so indicating that their ‘wisdom’ came from the Medes and Persians. It is possible that their belief in a coming Jewish king came from Daniel who was the chief of the wise men in the time of Nebuchadnezzar 550 years earlier. They were not kings.) They arrived at King Herod’s palace in Jerusalem asking to see the baby “who has been born king of the Jews” saying that they “saw his star when it rose” (Matthew 2:2 – other versions have “in the East”).

Herod the Great, although not a Jew himself, had ingratiated himself in Rome and had been appointed as King of the Jews by the Roman Senate in 40BC. He was a ruthless, paranoid tyrant who killed his wife and three sons as well as others in his family and beyond in order to protect his throne. So, hearing of a potential rival claim to the throne greatly troubled him. He consulted the chief priests who told him that, according to the prophet Micah, the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. Herod tells the wise men and asks them to bring news of the child back to him so that he can worship the child too.

The wise men visit Jesus in a house – this was many months after the visit of the shepherds – and worship him, giving costly gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Following a dream warning them not to go back to Herod they go home by a different route.

Joseph is then told in a dream to go to Egypt and so he takes Mary and Jesus there for some years until Herod died. Herod, once he realised that the wise men were not coming back, shows his true colours and sent his soldiers to kill all the male children in Bethlehem less than two years old. It was only after Herod died that Joseph and Mary returned to Nazareth.

(49) You will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus – Luke 1:31

November 7, 2013

Three of the gospel writers are Jewish, but Luke, the author of the third gospel, is Greek. Unlike the others he never met Jesus when he was on earth as a man but became a follower of Jesus through meeting other Christians in his local church. He later became a companion of Paul on some of his missionary journeys which are described in his second book, the Acts of the Apostles. Luke was a doctor and his gospel includes medical details as well as highlighting stories about women.

When Luke became a Christian many disciples of Jesus were still alive and their accounts of Jesus’ life were circulating verbally around the young churches. Some had started to write them down but Luke decides to undertake his own thorough investigation into the life of Jesus and sets out to interview many eyewitnesses who had seen Jesus and lived alongside him. The result is “an orderly account” that helps his readers “know the certainty of the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:3-4).

Luke starts his account with the birth of John the Baptist, born to an old priest called Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth. The angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah to tell him that they will have a son who will be the ‘Elijah’ that Malachi foretold (see Luke 1:17 and Malachi 4:5. Jesus says that John fulfils this prophecy in Matthew 11:11-14). Zechariah and Elizabeth had not been able to have children so Zechariah can’t believe the angel, but, shortly after this, Elizabeth conceives.

Gabriel’s next assignment is to go to Nazareth and tell a young woman called Mary some even more extraordinary news. She will have a son called Jesus who “will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High” and he will inherit the “throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever” (Luke 1:32-33). Mary has even more reason to doubt Gabriel than Zechariah as she is a virgin, engaged to a man called Joseph. She asks Gabriel how such a thing could happen and his answer is that “The Holy Spirit will come on you” and that “the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35).

Mary accepts his word, but as the pregnancy starts to become evident she risks being ostracised by her family and friends so she goes to stay with Elizabeth who is related to her. Not knowing what reception she will get she is greatly encouraged by Elizabeth’s response as she calls her “the mother of my Lord” (Luke 1:43). After John was born, Mary returned home in great trepidation. Her parents and the village community would not have accepted her story about the baby being conceived by the Holy Spirit and would have been furious with her for bringing shame on the family name.

Her fiancé Joseph knew that he was not responsible for the pregnancy and was naturally deeply hurt that Mary had seemingly been unfaithful to him so he decided to break off the engagement to make his position quite clear. (Jewish engagements were legally binding so Matthew tells us that Joseph decided to “divorce her quietly” (Matthew 1:19).) Then Joseph had a dream where an angel appeared to him telling him that Mary’s child was conceived by the Holy Spirit. Matthew highlights this as the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy that “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son” (Matthew 1:23 quoting Isaiah 7:14). After the dream Joseph goes ahead and marries Mary, so allowing the village to believe that the child was his and sharing her shame, although Matthew tells us that they did not consummate their marriage until after Jesus was born.

Both gospel writers are clear that Jesus was ‘born of a virgin’ as it says in the Apostles Creed. Luke gives us a detailed account from Mary’s perspective, probably one of the eyewitnesses that he interviewed, while Matthew gives us the account from Joseph’s perspective. This is an important fact about Jesus as the only way the new covenant could come into operation was through the sacrifice of a sinless man as a substitute for each of us. If Jesus was just a man then he would not have been fit to be a perfect sacrifice; if he was just God then he would not have been an appropriate sacrifice. By being born fully human but also fully God, Jesus was the only acceptable sacrifice.

(48) Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham – Matthew 1:1

November 6, 2013

The New Testament has twenty-seven books, all of which were written in the first century AD, over four hundred years after the time of Malachi. The first four are the Gospels, accounts of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, which are followed by an account of the spread of the early church. The next twenty-two ‘books’ are letters to churches, ending with the book of Revelation. The New Testament is laid out on the bottom shelf of the Bible Bookcase.

The four gospels are different in style, reflecting the character of the writers and their purpose in writing. Matthew, the writer of the first gospel, wrote with a Jewish audience in mind. His book has many references to the Old Testament and he shows how Jesus directly fulfilled prophecies using expressions such as “so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet” (Matthew 2:15) around thirty times.

Matthew was a tax collector, never a popular profession but made worse in Israel at this time as he was working to collect taxes for the Romans, the occupying power. He became one of Jesus’ twelve closest companions or disciples. His orderly style is seen in the opening of his gospel where he sets out the genealogy of Jesus, tracing his ancestry from Abraham, from David, and from Jeconiah (an alternative name for Jehoiakim) the young king taken into exile. Starting with a list of names initially appears dull to readers but for those with knowledge of the Old Testament it is full of significance.

First, Matthew calls Jesus the Messiah, or Jesus Christ. The Hebrew word ‘Messiah’ and the Greek word ‘Christ’ both mean ‘the Anointed One’ and refer to the expectation that the Jews had from many Old Testament prophecies of one who would come as their king. Matthew is starting with a claim that Jesus is the fulfilment of the hopes of the Jewish people for a Messiah. He then starts the genealogy with Abraham, the father of the Jewish race and the man who received the original promise from God that “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:3).

The link to David is equally significant as God promised him that he would have a descendant who would rule on the throne of Israel forever (see 2 Samuel 7:16). This promise appeared to have been lost when Jehoiakim was taken into exile but is now fulfilled in Jesus, the son of David. Matthew is making it clear to Jewish readers that Jesus is the Messiah, the one sent by God and who is God himself.

We might expect someone setting out to make the case for Jesus being God to airbrush out some of the details of his genealogy as there are a number of his ancestors who were far from perfect. In fact Matthew does leave some people out but the ones he includes are instructive. Abraham initially doubted God’s promise to give him a son. His grandson Jacob tricked his brother and deceived his father to gain the rights of the firstborn, and his son Judah had a son by his widowed daughter-in-law after she pretended to be a prostitute. David committed adultery with Bathsheba and murdered her husband to cover it up, but it was their son Solomon who is in the line of Jesus. Rather than disguising this fact Matthew actually highlights it by saying that “David was the father of Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah’s wife” (Matthew 1:6). The line of kings includes men of faith such as Jehoshaphat, Hezekiah and Josiah, as well as wicked men such as Rehoboam, Jehoram and Manasseh.

What does this tell us about Jesus?

Coming to earth as a man, God was prepared to relate himself in Jesus with an ordinary human heritage, including the normal human failings and sin that we all know. Although he himself did not sin, Jesus was able to sympathise with our weaknesses (see Hebrews 4:15) because he has shared our human experience. And if God is prepared to associate himself with such a sinful heritage then maybe he is prepared to associate himself with us too, with all our sins and faults. Matthew’s opening genealogy not only shows us that Jesus is linked to the past but also gives us hope for the future.

(47) The God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed – Daniel 2:44

November 5, 2013

When we open the New Testament and read the accounts of the life of Jesus we find a very different world from the one we left in the days of Nehemiah and Malachi. What happened in the intervening four hundred years?

When King Nebuchadnezzar had the troubling dream which he couldn’t remember in the morning, he threatened to kill all his wise men until Daniel stepped in to offer the interpretation. Standing before the powerful king Daniel told him that no one could tell him his dream apart from God. He then said that God had “shown King Nebuchadnezzar what will happen in days to come” (Daniel 2:28).

Nebuchadnezzar’s dream was of a giant statue with a head of gold, a chest of silver, thighs of bronze and legs of iron mixed with clay. While Nebuchadnezzar watched, the statue was destroyed by a rock that had not been cut by human hands which struck the image and broke it in pieces and reduced the metals to dust that was blown away by the wind. But the rock “became a huge mountain and filled the whole earth” (Daniel 2:35). Strange things happen in dreams but in this case Daniel told Nebuchadnezzar that it had meaning.

The statue represented four kingdoms. His kingdom, the Babylonian Empire, was the golden head, signifying its great splendour. It would be followed by three other kingdoms that would each have less splendour but greater strength, as represented by the types of metals which decreased in value as they increased in strength. During the time of the fourth kingdom God would “set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed” (Daniel 2:44).

The second kingdom was the Medes and Persians that overthrew the Babylonians at the end of Daniel’s life and which ruled the land of Israel during the time of Ezra, Nehemiah and Esther. This empire survived about two hundred years until it was overthrown by the third empire, Greece.

Alexander the Great became king of Macedon at the age of twenty and conquered the entire Middle East from Greece to India and down through Israel into Egypt before he died at the age of thirty-two. His desire was to take Greek culture to the world and, despite his kingdom splitting into four after his death, his legacy was a common international culture which included Greek as the international language. The Old Testament was translated into Greek around 250BC (a translation known as the Septuagint, meaning seventy, as the translation was made by seventy Jewish scholars) and the New Testament was written in Greek, enabling a rapid spread of the account of Jesus’ life.

The fourth kingdom was Rome which conquered the Jewish nation after a period of independence. This was the most powerful of all the empires in Nebuchadnezzar’s statue and the most enduring. Times of peace are rare in history but under Roman rule there was a period of about two hundred years of peace and stability starting a few decades before Jesus was born. The result of this was that his message spread rapidly on Roman roads, along its sea routes and via its postal system, all unimpeded by wars.

The four hundred years of silence between the Old and New Testaments was a time when God prepared the world for the most important event in human history, when God himself came to earth as a baby and died to bring in the New Covenant which offered forgiveness for all and to establish the kingdom of God that will never be destroyed.

(46) “The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant” – Jeremiah 31:31

November 4, 2013

The last of the minor prophets, Malachi, was a contemporary of Nehemiah and his short book, which is the last in the Old Testament, echoes the themes found at the end of Nehemiah. Malachi challenges the people for offering second rate sacrifices to God and for robbing God by not giving their tithes and offerings. The law said that the tithe – 10% of their income – was for the work of the priests and to support immigrants, the fatherless and widows (see Deuteronomy 14:28-29) and the priests and the poorest people are suffering without this. Malachi also rebukes the priests for not teaching the people God’s law, which is vitally important for the life of the nation, and challenges the men who divorce their wives, who defraud their workers of their wages, who oppress the poor and deprive the disadvantaged of justice.

Nehemiah and Malachi provide the last record we have of the people of Israel for over four hundred years. They bring the Old Testament to a conclusion with a bleak picture of God’s people who, in spite of the occasions when they have stood and committed themselves to following God’s law wholeheartedly and the terrible experience of the exile when God removed them from the land, remain unable to maintain their commitment and live as God intended.

God’s covenant with the people of Israel depended on their faithfulness in obeying his commands and they failed to do this generation after generation, including in Malachi’s day. However, the Old Testament does not leave us without hope. God promised a new covenant through the prophet Jeremiah.

This new covenant was different in that it only depended on God. The Lord said, “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbour, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest” (Jeremiah 31:33-34). This is an unconditional covenant. There is no use of the word ‘if’ as in the old covenant (see Exodus 19:5) or any need for God’s people to keep his laws. Instead of the law being an external rule book that condemns us, God will put his law in people’s hearts so that they will obey them. Instead of relying on priests or teachers to be intermediaries between us and God everyone can have direct access to knowing God for themselves.

How is this possible? David knew how difficult it was to be right before God and asked, “Who may stand in his holy place?” (Psalm 24:3) Isaiah the prophet was a good man but when he saw a vision of God he cried out “I am a man of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5).

At the end of the new covenant is a remarkable promise. God says that he will forgive our wrongdoing and remember our sin no more. In the Old Testament, sin could only be forgiven through regular sacrifice of animals. But in the new covenant, Isaiah had already talked about a ‘suffering servant’ who would be “pierced for our transgressions” and “crushed for our iniquities” (Isaiah 53:5). It is only through this sacrifice that sins can be forgiven.

Once we are forgiven we will also be equipped to follow God’s ways. Throughout the Old Testament there were men and women who tried hard to follow God’s laws and yet failed but there is another promise of things to come in the prophet Joel. He promised that God would pour out his Spirit on all people (see Joel 2:28) and enable them to be empowered by God in a way that was reserved for the few in the Old Testament.

The last words of Malachi are a promise that the Lord himself will come. He says that “the prophet Elijah” (Malachi 4:5) will prepare the way for him, words that were not to be fulfilled until four centuries years later when John the Baptist appeared in the Judean desert. After Malachi’s words the Bible is silent for four hundred years.

(45) Who knows but that you have come to this position for such a time as this? – Esther 4:14

November 1, 2013

The last history book in the Old Testament does not deal with the history of the Jews in the land of Israel but relates events that impact them across the Persian Empire. Jeremiah had encouraged the people of Israel that went into exile to “settle down” wherever they were and to “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile” (Jeremiah 29:5,7) and many had done just that and become wealthy citizens of the Persian Empire. This led to resentment from others and the book of Esther records an attempt to exterminate the Jewish race.

Esther was a Jewish orphan who had been brought up by her uncle Mordecai in the Persian capital Susa. The king of Persia, Xerxes (also known as Ahasuerus), sacked his queen for disobeying him and decided to find a new one through a beauty contest. Esther, who “had a lovely figure and was beautiful” (Esther 2:7), was spotted by the king’s officials and is taken to become part of the king’s harem from where she wins the contest to become queen.

We are then introduced to Haman, the Prime Minister, who is so incensed that Mordecai refuses to bow down to him, that he decides to destroy all the Jews. He tells the king how they have customs that are “different from those of all other people, and they do not obey the king’s laws” (Esther 3:8) and the king signs his edict to destroy all the Jews across the empire. Mordecai, along with the rest of the Jews, mourned with fasting and weeping and tells Esther that she must go to the king to plead on behalf of her people. Her link to Mordecai and her Jewish identity is unknown to the palace at this point in the story.

We may all, at times, wonder about the purpose and significance of our own life. Esther had gone from being a nobody to a queen and she probably felt that her life had already gained in significance in ways she could never have dreamed of but Mordecai sees her position differently. She, among all the Jews in the Empire, has the closest access to the King, the only man who could save them from their fate, and Mordecai challenges Esther that, “who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this” (Esther 4:14).

We might expect that the king would be only too happy to see his beautiful queen at any time but now we learn that he has not called for her for thirty days and that if anyone approached him without an invitation they faced immediate death. So, after prayer and fasting, Esther risks her life by approaching the king. (Surprisingly for a book in the Bible, Esther makes no direct mention of worship, prayer or even God himself. However, God’s hand is very clearly seen in the ‘coincidences’ and both Mordecai and Esther are said to fast in this crisis (Esther 4:16) which undoubtedly accompanied prayer.)

The king welcomes her and asks her what she wants. Esther is patient in her response and invites him and Haman to a feast. He gladly accepts and, at the end of the meal, again asks her what she wants. She asked for another feast the next day and promises him that she will then give him the real answer. At the end of the second feast she asks the king to save her life and the life of her people. Xerxes is shocked to discover that she is a Jew and furious when she tells him that Haman is behind the plot to kill her. Xerxes storms out into the palace garden in his rage while Haman, who had been so proud of being invited to feast with the king and queen, now pleads for his life in terror. The king returns to find Haman “falling on the couch where Esther was reclining” (Esther 7:8) and when the king sees Haman molesting the queen, his fate is sealed. Haman is hung on the gallows that he had specially built to hang Mordecai.

Mordecai then becomes Prime Minister and is able to pass laws giving the Jews the right to defend themselves against their aggressors. The day when they were going to be annihilated turns into a day when the Jews “got relief from their enemies” (Esther 9:22), an event that Jews still celebrate annually at Purim.

(44) The joy of the Lord is your strength – Nehemiah 8:10

October 31, 2013

Nehemiah did not go to Jerusalem just to rebuild the walls. King Artaxerxes appointed him as governor of the land of Judah and Nehemiah took a keen interest in the overall welfare of the land and its people.

During the time the wall was being rebuilt, it came to Nehemiah’s attention that many of the people were in poverty because some of the better off Jews were lending to them with interest. A time of famine had led to some mortgaging their fields to get food and the interest being charged had caused debts to multiply until people had to sell their sons and daughters into slavery to pay them off.

Nehemiah is angry about this. The people have returned from slavery in exile only to find themselves in slavery to one another. He challenges the nobles to stop the charging of interest and they commit to returning those sold into slavery and the interest on debts.

After the wall is complete the people held a national assembly and Ezra read to them from the Law of Moses. In a time when few people had copies of the law this may have been the first opportunity many had to hear it and they were eager to hear it. “He read it aloud from day-break until noon as he faced the square before the Water Gate in the presence of the men, women and others who could understand. And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law” (Nehemiah 8:3). Ezra was supported by a group of priests who helped the people understand the reading.

The people’s response to hearing God’s word was to weep and mourn for their sin as they realised that they had fallen far short of God’s requirement for them. Nehemiah tells them that this is not a time for mourning and they are not to grieve, “for the joy of the Lord is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10). It is a good thing to recognise our failings before God, but this can lead to a sense of unworthiness which stops us moving forward. It is as we appreciate God’s forgiveness – that he has made it possible for us to stand right before him – that we can stand tall, not in our own strength but in the joy of knowing him and what he has done for us.

The people renew their commitment to follow God’s law, both in terms of not doing the things it prohibits as well as positive things such as giving to support the work of the priests in the temple.

This gathering is one of the high points of the Old Testament: God’s people collectively committing themselves to obeying God’s law in his city. If they could do this then surely the people of Israel could live in peace and harmony enjoying the blessings that follow obedience to God’s commands. But the end of the Old Testament gives us a very different picture.

After a period back at the court of Artaxerxes in Babylon, Nehemiah returns to Jerusalem and discovers that one of the rooms in the temple which had been designed to hold provisions for the priests is now occupied by a man called Tobiah who had consistently sought to undermine God’s people. As a result the priests were not being given their allowance, which stopped them being able to devote themselves to worship. Also, the Sabbath – the Jewish day of rest – was being ignored by traders and, once again, the people were intermarrying with the surrounding nations. All of these things took people away from the true worship of God and were leading the nation back to the ways that caused the exile in the first place.

Nehemiah takes action to address the issues but it demonstrates that without strong leadership the people are not able to follow God’s ways. They may say the right things on certain occasions, but their ability to follow through and live as God intended under the old covenant is limited.

(43) So the wall was completed in fifty-two days – Nehemiah 6:15

October 30, 2013

Thirteen years after Ezra led the second return from exile he was joined by Nehemiah, who was a Jew who held a position of great importance in the court of King Artaxerxes: Nehemiah was the king’s cupbearer. This may sound like a menial position but it had the added edge that he had to taste the wine before giving it to the king so that if it was poisoned then he, rather than the king, would die. Nehemiah would have had trouble getting life insurance! The king’s father had been killed by a courtier so he had to have great trust in those who worked closely with him.

Nehemiah’s book opens with him hearing from his brother that the Jews who are living in Jerusalem are living in difficulty in a ruined city with broken down walls. Rather than being a testament to God’s restoration it is a place that its inhabitants are ashamed of.

Nehemiah’s response is to pray. This is characteristic of his approach and we read of a number of prayers in his short book. Like Ezra, he associates himself with the people of Israel and confesses their sin over the centuries during a period of prayer and fasting. He then asks God to give him success in a conversation with the king.

His opportunity arises when the king notices that he is sad and asks him why. Being sad in the king’s presence is risky but Nehemiah’s response is bold. Rather than give an excuse he tells the king that his sadness is due to the condition of Jerusalem. The king’s response is an answer to Nehemiah’s prayers and a testament to the trust that Nehemiah has earned. Artaxerxes asks him what he wants to redress the situation.

In the exchange that follows we see that Nehemiah combines his natural skill for strategic planning with total reliance of God in prayer. He has clearly thought through what is required to rebuild the walls and is able to tell the king how long it will take. But he also knows that success can only come from God. After his days of prayer and fasting his second recorded prayer is just a second or two. His account reads, “The king said to me, ‘What is it you want?’ Then I prayed to the God of heaven, and I answered the king…” (Nehemiah 2:4-5). He didn’t have time to turn aside from Artaxerxes for this prayer but in an instant he thanks God for giving him the opportunity to speak and asks for wisdom in his response before replying. The king grants him his request and sends him to Jerusalem to put his plan into action.

When he arrives he does a night time reconnaissance and finds the walls broken down and in ruins from the destruction by the Babylonians 140 years earlier. He tells the leaders about his plan to rebuild the walls and the words of the king and they immediately get behind him. Nehemiah is clearly a man with great administrative skills and he organises the entire city into teams that each build a section. The names of the builders are listed and they include priests, goldsmiths, perfume-makers, temple servants, merchants and the daughters of one of the rulers. Only the nobles of Tekoa “would not put their shoulders to the work under their supervisors” (Nehemiah 3:5). In contrast, a man called Baruch “zealously repaired another section” (Nehemiah 3:20). Despite sustained opposition from the surrounding peoples this collective effort resulted in the wall being completed in fifty-two days, a remarkably short time given the conditions.

The people celebrated the completion of the wall with a great gathering that included two large choirs which started in the west and processed round the wall in opposite directions until they met in the east by the temple where the priests offered sacrifice. This was a time of great joy and, once again, “the sound of rejoicing in Jerusalem could be heard far away” (Nehemiah 12:43).