The slam of the door of the Ark
John 12: First they wouldn’t believe, then they couldn’t.
John begins his countdown to crucifixion with a summary of Jesus’ relationship with the religious leaders of the day. Our Lord has spent considerable time with them and while those exchanges weren’t necessarily friendly, they were convincing. These men thrive on debate and Jesus gives them more debate than they want: winning the argument each time. He also proves his words by his deeds. On this very day Jesus is dining with Lazarus, the man Jesus called forth from the grave. At first, the leaders investigated Jesus and his miracles. At some point they saw the truth: that the miracles were real, confirming his identity. The problem is that Jesus isn’t one of them. In fact, he’s a nobody from an unimportant place. Surely, the Messiah will be an “insider” and not an “outsider” as is Jesus. They held back, at first, sure that they’d find a flaw in all this that would prove them right. When that flaw wasn’t found they hardened their position. Now, we find that they’re locked in to it. God has allowed them to be the unbelievers they choose to be all along. In this, the Lord didn’t have to shut them out. Rather, he let them be where they wanted to be all along. As I think about this, I hear the slam of the door of the Ark way back in the book of Genesis. I see the thousands of Israelites being marched off into captivity. I fear I see a future Day of Judgment in which people who would not believe are allowed to spend an eternity in that unbelief, apart from God and hope. It’s serious business to refuse to believe.
Take Away: Belief is a matter of the will.
Living with our decisions
Matthew 19: Moses provided for divorce as a concession to your hardheartedness, but it is not part of God’s original plan.
The religious leaders want to know Jesus’ views on marriage and divorce and the answer he gives is stricter than they think it should be. He declares that marriage is to be between a man and a woman and that their union is to be both physical and spiritual. No one has the authority to rip apart that union. Jesus, speaking in the manner of a rabbi and with the authority of the Son of God, adds that in the case of adultery he allows (but, note, he doesn’t “require”) an exception to this permanent man/woman union. The leaders, then, want to know why Moses includes a broader divorce procedure in the Law. Is Jesus claiming authority beyond that of Moses? His answer is eye-opening. Moses, Jesus says, finds it necessary to provide for the destruction of a marriage because of people’s hard hearts. God didn’t plan for this to be necessary, but Moses sees the need and God allows it. This interpretation is fascinating. On one level, I’m interested in this situation in which God doesn’t get his way and in which he allows Moses to adjust things. If God has his own way there will never be a divorce. However, since people have hard hearts the Lord allows the Law to accommodate it. This is an interesting application of the Lord’s commitment to our free-will. The other thing that gets my attention is the strong possibility that I can, because of my hardheartedness insist on something that the Lord reluctantly allows, leaving me in a permanent sub-par situation. I’m glad we serve a God of Second Chances and I know that in him, life is good. Still, I see that the Lord won’t stop me from doing that which will bring a lifetime of pain, or at the very best, a lifetime of knowing that if not for my stubbornness things could be better for me than what they are. I’m thankful for the grace of God, but I’m also aware that I have a real responsibility to live carefully and to remain in harmony with the Lord each step of the way.
Take Away: Even though the Lord will allow it, I must be careful to not overrule God’s will in my life.
The God of whatever happens
Jonah 3: God…did change his mind about them.
What an interesting statement! God intends to do one thing, but then, in response to what they do, he changes his mind and does something else. This view of God challenges our thinking about who he is and how he works in this world. The Lord’s willing to be influenced by what we say and do. Of course, in this case, this is what he wanted to have happen. Had God only wanted to destroy them we’d have no story of Jonah and the big fish. Instead, we’d have another Sodom and Gomorrah story about fire and brimstone wiping out a sinful city. The reluctant prophet is sent on this mission exactly because God wants their lives to change. This is a classic Old Testament prophet situation. The prophet says, “If you do this, God’s going to do that…if you do that, God’s going to do this.” The Lord’s message to Nineveh is that, because of their sin, destruction is coming. However, even though it’s unspoken, they’re also being given a choice. If sin is bringing destruction, repentance will bring life. When the people of Nineveh make the right choice God is happy to change his mind. This kind of thinking opens up all kinds of possibilities for us. When I pray, asking for God’s intervention in some matter, I’m not just going through a spiritual discipline. Rather, I’m actually being allowed to influence God! My standing in this world is much more than my traveling some predetermined path to some predetermined conclusion. I’m a partner with God who’s allowing me to work with him in changing the world. Here’s a view of a God who’s never at a loss; who always knows what he’ll do in response to what I do of my own free will. Such a view doesn’t make God less. Instead, it makes him more. He’s God whatever happens.
Take Away: As his people we’re partners with the Lord who allows us to work with him in changing the world.
Farther than you want to go
Hosea 4: That whirlwind has them in its clutches.
Hosea’s personal parable soon gives way to his prophecies concerning sinful Israel. The background of his own experience is especially evident in his constant references to the debauchery of Israel and descriptions of God’s disgust with their practices even as he loves them and calls them back. The experience of Hosea with his unfaithful wife is a reflection of all that. In this passage Hosea complains about their idol worshipping, sexually explicit religion. They think promiscuity and drunkenness is their ticket to happiness and satisfaction. Instead, as some wise people have said, “Sin will take you farther than you want to go.” They’re willingly giving themselves to something that won’t satisfy and will ultimately destroy them. What starts out as willful sin (“I can quit anytime I want”) becomes obsession and possession. What they thought they could control now controls them. People start down some foolish path thinking they’re in control. Before long, they’re where they never expected to be and bound by what they never thought could control them.
Take Away: Sin will take you farther than you want to go.
The big picture
Daniel 12: It will be a time of trouble, the worst trouble the world has ever seen.
Imagine the second part of Daniel as a mural done by a master artist depicting the rise and fall of kingdoms through history. As we examine the mural we see mighty nations rise, then divide, and then fall to some new world power. Some folks have patiently examined Daniel’s “mural,” attaching labels to the various kingdoms he describes. Those folks might be right and they might be wrong. Frankly, for me to attempt this is a waste of time. The least of those who seriously attempt to match nations up with Daniel’s vision is superior to me. I get lost in it all fairly soon. I do come away from Daniel’s sweeping picture with certain impressions. For one thing, I’m reminded that, even though I firmly believe human beings have free will, there’s an overarching flow of human history that’s firmly in the hands of God. Second, even though it seems some things happen outside of God’s providence, I’m reminded that the Lord remains Sovereign over all. Whether or not I think God is orchestrating, down to some detail, the flow of events I need to remember that nothing’s happening on the world stage that he isn’t at least allowing to happen. Finally, I see that there’s an end to the story. Things won’t forever continue as they are. Daniel sums it up with a description of everything coming to a head with “the worst trouble the world has ever seen.” The Lord isn’t a bystander to human history. He’s ushering us along to some specific events and, ultimately, to a specific conclusion. As I watch the world news and see the clashes of world powers, it’s good to remember that nothing that happens is a surprise to God. That may not be a very complete view of the nature of prophecy, but it’s not a bad place to start and, while I may not understand the specifics, I do get the big picture.
Take Away: There’s an overarching flow of human history that’s firmly in the hands of the Lord.
The bottom line on the bottom line
Daniel 7: The Old One sat down.
The Book of Daniel is clearly divided into two parts. The first half recounts for us stories of God’s empowerment of and protection over the Hebrews who were taken into Babylon. The second half contains Daniel’s reports of his visions and dreams concerning the future. I think anyone will agree that the stories are more fun than the visions. However, we find in these six chapters of Daniel Old Testament writing that reminds us of the Book of Revelation. In fact, it’s likely that the writer of Revelation borrows some of his imagery from these visions. When Daniel is tossed into the den of lions we read about it as a very personal account of faith and deliverance. Now, his visions of the flow of history are so broad in scope as to take our breath away. He sees kingdoms rise and fall as bewildering history unfolds before him. Theologically, I firmly believe the Lord has granted us free will and, because of that, the future isn’t predetermined in detail. However, I also believe that God is ushering the human race to a future he’s already declared. In other words, I’m free to cooperate with God or not. Because of that, my future isn’t predestined. The big picture, though, is known to God because he’s already determined to bring it to pass. When the Almighty decides to do something, well, he doesn’t have to see the future to state that it will happen. In this specific vision, Daniel sees a series of future kingdoms appear, flourish, and then give way to the next. At one point he notes that in the midst of all the rising and falling that there’s a fiery throne and on that throne sits the Ancient of Days. I love that picture. Kingdoms rise and fall, human history marches through time, and in the midst of it all we see God in his glory and authority. I don’t claim to have all that great a handle on prophecy but I think I have this one figured out. Through it all, in it all, above it all: God is.
Take Away: Everything else gives way. God remains.
Daniel 6: God…closed the mouths of the lions.
Daniel’s political enemies might have conspired to have him thrown into the den of lions but they couldn’t control the lions, themselves. God sends an angel to do that and his man survives unscathed his night with the big cats. The king is relieved. After all, it was his gullible foolishness that caused all of this in the first place. He’s ready to acknowledge the power and authority of Daniel’s God. Darius then turns his attention to the conspirators and their families. He has them all thrown into the lion’s den. God’s angel has already departed and they come to a horrible end. As I read this I’m reminded that Daniel represents God in a wicked and heartless regime. Nebuchadnezzar, it seems, had a genuine change of heart. Darius, on the other hand, has been impressed and humbled by Daniel’s God and from now on he will treat Daniel’s God with respect. In other words, Darius’ experience was not nearly as personal as was Nebuchadnezzar’s. Daniel prospers under Darius and then under Cyrus. Apparently, neither of these two become worshipers of the Lord but they respect Daniel and his God. We Christians have something to learn here. If possible, we want people to become believers; to join us in worship of the only one worthy of worship. However, we may not always see that happen. In some cases the best we will see is that others will decide we and our faith have earned their respect. Hopefully, that will be a first step to something more for them, but that decision is out of our hands.
Take Away: Live in such a way as to influence people for the Lord – if nothing else, to earn their respect and to cause them to respect the one we worship.
Take your pick
Daniel 4: Make a clean break with your sins…quit your wicked life…then you will continue to have a good life.
Nebuchadnezzar’s been dreaming again. This time he dreams of a larger-than-life tree that commands the landscape and provides for all around it. In the dream God orders the tree to be cut down but the stump be saved. Nebuchadnezzar wants to know the meaning of the dream and Daniel comes through for him. The king’s “statue” dream was about his kingdom. His “tree” dream is about him personally. The Lord’s weary of Nebuchadnezzar’s ignoring him. When there are miraculous events that declare God Almighty to him Nebuchadnezzar gives God lip service, but goes on living his own way. This time, the Lord will touch his life directly to humble him enough that he’ll stop merely declaring the Lord to be God but will start acting as though he believes it. After explaining the dream to Nebuchadnezzar Daniel pleads with him to respond now and avoid the reality of what he’s dreamed. In other words, through the dream and Daniel’s interpretation of it Nebuchadnezzar is being given a choice. If he continues as he is the dream will become reality. If he repents right now and changes his ways he can continue “to have a good life.” I see this as an example of the openness of God. Nebuchadnezzar’s future isn’t already set, but based on how he responds to this warning, it’s already known. If he heeds this warning from God things will go one way. If he ignores it, things will go the other. In this I see the Lord as knowing, not just one set future, but all possible futures. In this application we see God not only warning Nebuchadnezzar, but offering him a much more desirable alternative. Still, the Lord won’t negate his free will…the ball is in Nebuchadnezzar’s court.
Take Away: The Lord has granted us free will, but he holds us accountable for our exercise of that free will.
Don’t push God too far
Ezekiel 24: I wanted to clean you up, but you wouldn’t let me.
I don’t like this portion of Ezekiel. He graphically describes people’s betrayal of God as adultery. The picture is ugly and the images are “R” rated. Not only that, but Ezekiel offers them no hope. God, he says, is done with them. Even if the sexual content of this passage didn’t earn an “R” the violence Ezekiel says is coming would. Again, this isn’t a warm, fuzzy passage! The Lord doesn’t want it to be this way. Even after his people committed spiritual adultery with other gods and nations he reached out to them. The problem was that they wanted none of it. No matter what God did or said, they refused to respond. They turned their backs on God and acted in ways intended to send him the message that they didn’t want anything to do with him. It could have been different. His plan was to clean them up, to make them into a holy people, his very own. In fact, that’s still his plan. However, that will come in a different generation. For now, he’s finished with them and he’s going to clean the place up by getting rid of them. Their children and grandchildren will get another chance, not them. The Lord won’t force us to come to him. We can break his heart and we can make him angry but he’ll never force us to do the right thing even when it’s for our own good. I may not be able to solve the needs of my life but I do have the final say as to whether or not God is allowed to do so. If I agree, he’ll go to work, cleaning up the mess I’ve made. If I refuse, there’s a very real danger that he’ll let me continue down the path I insist on traveling and in so doing, will arrive at the destination I’ve persisted in reaching.
Take Away: We may not be able to solve the needs of our lives but we have been granted the responsibility and ability to allow the Lord to do so.