Luke 21: I’m not just saying this for some future generation, but for this one, too.
Jesus’ description of future events is sobering. He describes false teachers, betrayal, wars, earthquakes, persecution, destruction, and other huge events. Since I know that some of this already happened I’m tempted to think I’m clear of at least some of the things our Lord describes. Then I run head long into Jesus’ declaration that these words are for all of his followers. He says that coming big events are obvious to those who pay attention even as the coming of summer is forecast by the budding of the trees. Our Lord wants his followers to pay attention, not so much to specific things, like the rise of a false Messiah, but to the general flow of things. After all, a person who watches just one tree as a predictor of summer might or might not see new leaves. However, one who watches an entire forest will see proof abundant that things are changing. On one hand, I think it’s a mistake to list a few “signs” and focus in on just them. After all, one might have misread the meaning of the passage in the first place. However, if I pay attention I might just see that big things are brewing. At that time, I don’t have to be afraid, according to Jesus, but I do want to be sure I’m ready for what I believe is coming.
Take Away: Even if I miss some of the signs I’ll be okay if I stay ready.
Church of the Nazarene
Matthew 2: He shall be called a Nazarene
I like to think about the little mysteries of the Bible and Matthew’s comment that Joseph’s moving his family to the town of Nazareth, thus making Jesus a “Nazarene” is a fulfillment of prophecy is one such mystery. There’s no record of such a prophecy being stated, yet Matthew seems quite confident that pointing his readers to this is yet another proof of the Messiah-ship of Jesus. I’ve found a couple of explanations to this. Some people think it has to do with the similarity of “Nazarene” to a Hebrew word meaning “Branch.” Use of that term is found in the Old Testament prophecies concerning the Messiah. It has to do with the Messiah’s being a descendent of David. The other idea has to do with the prophecies concerning the Messiah’s being despised and rejected. The connection is that Nazareth is considered to be a backward, unimportant place that could only produce backward, unimportant people. There’s a danger in overstating the standing (or lack there-of) of Nazareth here. It’s not as though it’s thought of as a bad place. It’s more of a “no place” than it’s a “bad place.” From the point of view of the religious scholars of that day, Nazareth and a hundred other small towns don’t qualify as a place worthy of consideration. Isaiah prophesied that the Messiah would be overlooked and rejected…a sort of “Nazarene.” Whatever the answer to this little riddle, Matthew thinks it should help people decide, along with the rest of his Gospel, that Jesus, is, indeed, the Messiah of God.
Take Away: We don’t have to solve every mystery of the Bible, sometimes they just add a bit of spice to our study of it.
The curtain falls, but Act II is about to begin
Malachi 4: Remember and keep the revelation I gave through my servant Moses.
Did Malachi understand that these words were to become, for Christians across the ages, the closing words of the Old Testament? It’s highly unlikely. However, I believe God, the Holy Spirit knew it. The last two paragraphs of Malachi are an excellent ending for the Old Testament. For those of that day, still living under the Law, one of the last words is “remember.” They’re to keep the “rules and procedures for right living” given them by Moses. If they do that they’ll have done what the Lord requires of them. However, there’s another last word. It’s, “also look ahead.” The Lord isn’t finished working out redemption for them and all that has happened thus far has prepared the way for the really big deal that’s yet to come. As the curtain’s falling on this, the first act we’re told that the next act is going to be both interesting and surprising. They’ll know it’s starting when Elijah shows up to usher it in. For the people of Israel, that’s a long 400 years distant in the future. As for me, all I have to do is turn the page to see what has, up to now, been the black and white picture of God’s salvation plan displayed in living color.
Take Away: Even to this day we are wise to obediently remember what the Lord has told us while at the same time look forward to what he has promised us.
The end and the beginning
Zechariah 14: What a Day that will be!
The prophet started out encouraging the returned exiles as they tackled the rebuilding of the Temple. He finishes his writing by looking to the future and reporting on the end of history. When things appear hopeless the Almighty will come to the rescue in what will be the final battle. The Lord will set foot on the historic Mount of Olives, just east of Jerusalem. Years after this prophecy Jesus prays on the Mount of Olives at the Garden of Gethsemane, and later, following his resurrection he ascends to heaven from the Mount of Olives. As he disappears into the sky angels deliver God’s message that Jesus will return in “like manner.” Like pieces of a puzzle revealed as the centuries pass, things fall into place. Zechariah says that when the Lord comes he’ll defeat the final enemy and when he sets foot on the Mount of Olives that it will split in half. His coming will bring all things to an end. At the same time it will begin all things anew. Then, as the disciples stand on that very same spot, angels tell them Jesus is coming back even as he has just left them. Oh yeah, Zechariah has it right: “what a Day that will be!”
Take Away: God’s people look forward to the glorious return of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Thirty silver coins
Zechariah 11: They paid me an insulting sum, counting out thirty silver coins.
I confess I’m lost as I read this passage. Up till now, Zechariah has been the encouraging prophet, cheering the people on as they rebuild the Temple. With its negative tone, this prophecy seems out of place and sounds more like something Ezekiel or Jeremiah might have said and done. Indeed, there are no time markers in the text and it doesn’t necessarily have to chronologically follow what comes before. I don’t know whether or not this message is intended to have great meaning to Zechariah’s contemporaries. However, the thirty pieces of silver really gets our attention. This sum is the amount that’s paid for the betrayal of Jesus. Without making a serious attempt at dealing with this passage as a scholar, here’s the picture as I see it. Zechariah’s directed to take a job as the shepherd for a flock that’s marked for slaughter. Apparently, he has some authority and soon fires the other shepherds who are care nothing for the sheep. However, even though he leads the sheep with their best interests in mind, they rebel against him. Zechariah quits his job and demands his salary and is paid what he thinks of as an insulting wage of thirty silver coins — about three month’s wages. He then throws the money into the poor box. As a reader who can simply turn the pages of the Bible to the story of Jesus, this passage makes all kinds of sense. Here’s the Good Shepherd who comes to lovingly care for a people doomed for destruction. Jesus longs to gather the people of Israel to himself and to lovingly care for them. However, they rebel against him and he’s betrayed for thirty silver coins. Here we have a remarkable statement of prophecy given over 500 years before its fulfillment.
Take Away: The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.
Palm Sunday foretold
Zechariah 9: Your king is coming!
Israel is without a king and under the rule of the Persian King Darius. As the returned exiles accept the call of God to rebuild the Temple, the Lord encourages them through the messages and visions of the prophet Zechariah. God’s pleased with them and their commitment to the huge Temple project and promises to be with them. He’ll do for them what they cannot do themselves. Good days are ahead. Not only will the Lord help them in the reconstruction project, he’s going to make them into a great nation that will influence all the nations of the earth. The day will come when they’ll be freed from the rule of Darius and will, instead, be ruled by a King sent from God. That king will come into Jerusalem, not riding a mount of war, but upon a mount that symbolizes humility and peace, a donkey. It will be 500 years before that event takes place and then at least 2000 years more before the promise Zechariah gives is totally fulfilled. However, the “donkey riding King” has already ridden into Jerusalem. It happened when Jesus, the Messiah, rode a borrowed donkey into Jerusalem on the day we call Palm Sunday. When that took place, the words of long dead Zechariah were proven literally true.
Take Away: The Lord always keeps his promises.
Prophet, Priest, and King
Zechariah 6: Showing that king and priest can coexist in harmony.
The prophet has a number of visions, and I’m not sure even he understands them all. In one vision he sees the high priest, Joshua and is told to fashion a crown for him. Zechariah is also told that Joshua’s (which is Hebrew for “Jesus”) name is “Branch” because he will “branch out” and take on the role of royalty, serving as both priest and king. Now, I’m pretty lost in the contemporary meaning of this vision. However, I know that about 500 years from the time these words are written that a man who is Prophet, Priest, and King is going to come to this world. These offices will be united in him and he’ll change everything. I know Zechariah’s words have meaning for the people who have returned from exile and are focused on rebuilding the Temple. However, I think they’re also intended to lay a foundation of understanding concerning the coming of the Son of God to this world. When the writer of Hebrews describes Jesus to us he spends a great deal of time describing his ministry as our Great High Priest. Then, the Revelator lifts him as King of kings and Lord of lords.
Take Away: In Jesus we have prophet, priest, and King.
Back to the future
Micah 5: Bethlehem…from you will come the leader who will shepherd-rule Israel.
It becomes quite clear to anyone who reads through the Old Testament prophets that speaking of future events is not their job one. Most often they focus on current events, calling people to a genuine walk with God and to living just lives as his people. However, once in a while, they’re given pretty specific insights into God’s plans. You might say that they get a glimpse of the future – not as though the future is out there to be seen if you just know how, but that the Lord shares some specific part of his intentions. As Micah describes God’s plan to remake his people he gets a glimpse of the coming shepherd-leader and realizes he will come from David’s home town of Bethlehem. In the years to come, that little revelation will grow large in the minds of God’s people. And well it should, this is something concrete, a test to be applied in identifying the Messiah. Meanwhile, Micah doesn’t dwell on this juicy bit of revelation and moves on to describe the ministry of the One sent from God. Clearly, there’s a lot to think about as I read things like this but today I’m simply reminded that God doesn’t do stuff by accident. In this passage, we find the Lord planning 700 years into the future where he intends to do something connected to an event just as distant in the past. That is, he plans for the Messiah to be born in the town where the greatest King of Israel’s history was born. The Lord not only has specific plans for the future but he also has the heart of a poet in those plans.
Take Away: The Lord doesn’t do things by accident.
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.