Christ Died – Matthew 27:45-56

In his account of the death of Jesus Christ, Matthew chooses to report more about the supernatural events surrounding Jesus’s death than about the crucifixion itself. In particular in our text, he describes five signs directly linked to the death of Christ – darkness (v. 45), the split veil (v. 51a), an earthquake (v. 51b), open tombs and resurrected bodies (v. 52-53), and the salvation of a pagan soldier (v. 54). Much time is wasted trying to discover how these things occurred; instead we ought to occupy ourselves seeking to understand why they happened.  The importance of the three hours of darkness, for instance, is not whether this was the result of an historical First Century eclipse, but that darkness was a sign of the presence of great evil resulting in the judgment of God.

Of Christ’s seven sayings from the cross, Matthew records just one – chronologically, the fourth of seven. Shortly before his death, Jesus desperately cries out, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?”(v. 46).  Matthew joins the Hebrew “Eli” (meaning, “my God”) with the Aramaic, “lema sabachthani” (meaning, “why have you forsaken me?”). The crowd of mockers mistakenly interpret His words as calling for the prophet Elijah (v. 49); but make no mistake, Jesus was genuinely experiencing the loss of communion with His Father. As human beings, we cannot fathom the agony of the feeling of abandonment by the One with whom He knew eternal intimacy. Christian theology developed the belief that it was at this moment that Christ bore the sins of all humanity, thus spiritually separating Him from His Father. One might ask, how is it possible for the eternal Son to be divided from the Father with whom He is in eternal Unity?  We will not find the ontological nature of this division addressed in Scripture, and delving too much into this has led to much error. All we know for sure is that Jesus’s words, along with the testimony of the surrounding darkness, point to the absence of God at this significant point of human history. It must suffice for us to accept that while Jesus was forsaken, He was never separated from God.

Our text leaves us with great hope, as darkness is not the final sign. After Christ bows His head and yields up His spirit, tombs are miraculously opened and a pagan man is saved. This points to the fact that, in Christ, not only was atonement made and the wrath of God fully satisfied, but that His sacrifice was accepted and leads to new life – from death come resurrection to those who are in Christ!

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Settling Down . . . to Serve – Nehemiah 7

“Then God put it in my heart to assemble the nobles and the officials and the people to be enrolled by genealogy.” (Nehemiah 7:5a ESV)

We have carefully followed the story of the returned Jewish exiles from the beginning of the Book of Ezra up until this point in the middle of the Book of Nehemiah. Throughout this narrative, we’ve covered hundreds of miles, multiple generations, manifold miracles, several ploys of enemies, times of sin and lag from the people, and victories led by faithful leaders – all culminating in this chapter, wherein, after all these things, the people are settled in the land, the enemies have been thwarted, the temple is ready, and the walls are finished. It’s time to sit back and relax, right?

Wrong! The journey has just begun.

Now to be clear, the Lord does bless his people with times of rest; we are not to be so busy that we neglect refreshment for our souls and renewal for our bodies. But as long as God’s people dwell on this earth, we are called to serve the Lord with joy and diligence.

Nehemiah 7 is a transitional chapter. On one hand it seems to be the end of a long series of battles, both internal and external, with a great sigh of relief that the task is now done: verse 1 tells us the wall and its gates had been built, and the people were set in their places. However, verse 4 reveals Nehemiah’s heart, “The city was wide and large, but the people within it were few, and no houses had been rebuilt.” What good is a walled city if there are no people?

All those adventures leading to this point come to a head with the structure of the city. But that structure – with its temple and its walls – stands in vain if it is not used. Therefore, Nehemiah envisions a time wherein the city will be filled and the temple will be used, all in the service of the True and Living God. After all, God’s glory is the ultimate goal of all the people have gone through.

This chapter is not just another long list of names. It is a looking back to all that God has done through his people and looking forward to what God will do through them. Likewise, we experience the challenges and victories of the Christian life. But when a trial seems over and a given task completed, don’t let down your guard and quit; that victory is only another motivation to press forward in the service of the Lord!

A Call to Love the Brethren – (1 Peter 1:22-2:3)

“22 Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart,”

Love is the hallmark of the Christian faith, because it is rooted in the God whose very essence is love.

John tells us that “anyone who does not love, does not know God, because God is love” (1 John 4:8).

We see God’s love in the way he cares for his creation; but above all, it is demonstrated in the giving of His only begotten Son Jesus Christ to die on the cross for us. Now His love is not like our human love. He doesn’t love us because we are loveable and obedient creatures, nor is it because we make Him feel good.  On the contrary, the scriptures tell us:  “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Rom 5:8).

After identifying His readers as those who are born again by the mercy of God and have now become sons and daughters of God through adoption, Peter then exhorts them to walk worthy of their calling, in holiness and the fear of God. He now turns their attention to how they are to relate to their fellow pilgrims.

He says that they are to love them “sincerely,” “earnestly,” and from a “pure heart.”

Our love is to be genuine and not pretentious. It is to be an “all-out” kind of love, similar to the love of Christ for us.

However, being fully aware of our weakness as redeemed and yet not fully sanctified sinners, Peter knows that we will come short of this kind of love; so in verses 2:1-3, he gives us guidelines as to how we can grow in our love for one another.  First, we must put off those things that marked us in our fallen condition: malice, deceit, hypocrisy, envy and slander. Secondly, we must feed daily upon the word of God, and particularly the gospel of our salvation, so that we may grow more in this Christian grace of love. And finally, we are to abide in, feed upon, and learn from Christ, who is love incarnate.  May the Lord help us to demonstrate to the world that we are Christ’s disciples by our fervent love for one another.

 

The Table and the Bread – Exodus 25:23-30

In many households people don’t think much about the place where they eat their food; many simply eat their fill anywhere and move on to more important things. But for Christians, the table where we eat carries far more significance; it is a place where we gather, at least once a day, to thank the Lord for providing us with food. Without the Lord’s provision we would have nothing to eat at all. It is also a place where our families fellowship together, discussing the events of our day among other things in our lives.

In Exodus chapter 25 we find Moses upon the mountain of the Lord receiving instructions from God concerning the building of the Tabernacle. After first describing what was to be collected for the Tabernacle’s construction in verses 3-9, God tells Moses how to construct the Ark of the Covenant, which is where they were to keep the commandments of God, and where God would dwell and speak to His people (verses 10-22). The ark would later be placed in what is called the Holy of Holies, in the Tabernacle. The Lord next instructs Moses to build a table. The table, like the Ark, is to be made of acacia wood and overlaid with pure gold. A bit smaller in size than the Ark, the table nevertheless will hold a special place in the Tabernacle as it would be placed right outside the Holy of Holies, in the Holy Place. The table was to hold plates and dishes of pure gold, and verse 30 says, “And you shall set the bread of the Presence on the table before me regularly.”

Like the dinner table in a believer’s home, this table of the bread of presence in the Tabernacle holds a deeper meaning than just a place for food. The table and the bread represent the Lord’s provision for Israel. He would provide their daily bread (Exodus 16:4). It points to the covenant the Lord made with His people – how they would worship Him alone (Exo 20:1-3). It also represents fellowship with the Lord. Once per week, as the priests replaced the bread, they would eat the bread in the Lord’s presence (Lev 24:5-9). This would take place as Israel journeyed in the wilderness and finally entered the Promised Land. But these things also point to a time when not only the priests, but all true children of God, would commune with the Lord, and remember – He is our sustainer and provider and the One we worship.

Resisting the Enemy’s Tactics – Nehemiah 6

“Remember Tobiah and Sanballat, O my God, according to these things that they did, and also the prophetess Noadiah and the rest of the prophets who wanted to make me afraid.” (Nehemiah 6:14 ESV)

Since the days in the Garden of Eden, Satan has shown himself to be a cunning, crafty, conniving enemy, bent on deceiving and destroying God’s people. He has not stopped – we see his activity throughout the Old and New Testaments and we are called to recognize it today. James 4:7 says, “Resist the devil and he will flee.” Paul talks about not wanting to be “outwitted by Satan” by being “ignorant of his devices” (2 Corinthians 2:11). And Peter warns, “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.”

Our studies in Ezra and Nehemiah have illustrated this point vividly. Chapter after chapter, we find the enemies of the people of God trying to thwart the furtherance of the Kingdom of God. Our text this Sunday, Nehemiah 6, is no different. Once again, the Enemy shows up immediately after a victory. The wall has been built, the breaches have been fixed, the work was a success, and it was almost completed. Before the final touches of the gates were installed, Sanballat, Tobiah, and Gesham show up again, hoping to stop any further progress.

Remember, we are admonished to be aware of Satan’s devices. In this narrative we find at least three specific tactics of the Enemy: distraction, distortion, and deception. Nehemiah proves his leadership capability by recognizing these tactics and then resisting the Enemy. One by one, these darts are fired but they miss their target.

We may not find ourselves building literal walls, but like the people of Nehemiah’s day we ought to be engaged in work of the Kingdom of God. As we work, we should anticipate opposition. Let us not only be mindful that opposition is coming, but be vigilant and wise, understanding the tactics of the Enemy that we may overcome in the power of the Spirit of God. The Enemy will still distract. He will still distort. And he will still deceive. But, praise God, “greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world!” (1 John 4:4)

The Ark of the Lord – Exodus 25:10-22

Last time we entered a new section in Exodus wherein the Lord instructed Moses how to build the Tabernacle beginning in chapter 25. After first directing Moses how the offerings were to be collected, the Lord then instructed Moses on the dimensions and materials of the Ark of the Covenant.

The Ark holds a prominent place in history recorded in the Old Testament. It was this Ark that held the Commandments written with the Lord’s own hand (Exo 31:18). The Ark led the people through the wilderness (Numbers 10:33-36). The waters of the Jordan River parted as the Ark was carried into the river so Israel could pass through on dry ground (Joshua 3:13-17). The walls of Jericho fell as the Ark was carried around the city seven times (Joshua 6:6, 20). And in our text (chapter 25:10-22) the Ark also takes up a prominent place in the Tabernacle itself. One might suppose that a description in the construction of the Tabernacle would begin with the Tabernacle itself, but the Lord starts with a description of the heart of the Tabernacle, the Ark of the Covenant; in fact, the Ark is what the Tabernacle was made for. It was here that the Lord would meet with His people, as Exodus 25:22 describes.

The Ark of the Covenant had at least two purposes: First, to hold the commandments the Lord would give Israel (25:16); and second, to house the mercy seat, which covered the Ark (25:17-22). Further, in Leviticus 16:11-16, the Lord tells Aaron to make a sacrifice and place the blood on the mercy seat to make atonement for sin on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). The word for “mercy seat” in Hebrew is kapporet, which is related to the word Kippur, meaning to atone or propitiate. This word is translated in the Greek version of the Old Testament, hilasterion, which is the same word ascribed to Jesus in Romans 3:25: whom God put forward as a ”hilasterion” a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.” At the cross, Jesus is the final atonement; He is our mercy seat! In this way the Ark of the Covenant points us to Jesus Christ and His once-for-all, final, perfect sacrifice.

 

 

The Outcry of the Powerless – Nehemiah 5

“Now our flesh is as the flesh of our brothers, our children are as their children. Yet we are forcing our sons and our daughters to be slaves, and some of our daughters have already been enslaved, but it is not in our power to help it, for other men have our fields and our vineyards.” (Nehemiah 5:5 ESV)

Derek Thomas begins his comments on Nehemiah 5 with the following:

“Foreclosures…corporate greed…mortgage crisis…laissez faire economics…government interventionism…lending fees…fiscal liquidity. No, those aren’t headlines from this week’s newspaper, though they might well have been. They actually summarize Nehemiah 5.”

You may recall the triumph of our last narratives in the book. On Easter Sunday, for example, we considered the resurrection of the wall in the face of opposition and with materials that seemed all but dead. Yet in God’s power, motivated by God’s word, the people of God arose and built. Once again we saw the enemies’ plans fail.

But Satan was not done. He does not want to see the people of God advance because he knows what that means for his domain. Perhaps the most powerful weapon in his arsenal is division. And here in Nehemiah 5, we see an internal conflict that could be more disastrous than any threat from the outside.

Some of the Israelites had to give up their property, including their own children, in order to afford to live in Jerusalem. Furthermore, they were charged interest by the own kinsmen, which was not only overbearing, it was in direct violation of God’s word (Deuteronomy 23:19-20)! These burdens created a power struggle within the community, with those exacting interest on top and those at the bottom feeling powerless.

The powerless cried out to Nehemiah, who in turn prayed to God and came up with a solution. He called the leaders to repentance, and by the grace of God they did repent. Nehemiah’s swift response to the problem is a reflection of the character of God, who is jealous for the unity of his people. Furthermore, Psalm 34:4 says, “I sought the Lord and he heard me.” Many times in life we, too, will feel overburdened and powerless. We will go through times of injustice and conflict. But God delights in answering the cries of his children!

When you are distraught, it’s ok to cry. But do not let your crying turn into bitterness or complaint. Cry out to God, who takes pleasure in answering his people.