God of the Impossible

And he said to him, “I am the Lord who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess.” But he said, “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” 10 And he brought him all these, cut them in half, and laid each half over against the other. But he did not cut the birds in half. 11 And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.

12 As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram. And behold, dreadful and great darkness fell upon him. 13 Then the Lord said to Abram, “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. 14 But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. 15 As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. 16 And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.”

17 When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. 18 On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, 19 the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, 20 the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, 21 the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites and the Jebusites.”  Genesis 15:7-21 ESV

Abram “believed the Lord” (Genesis 15:6 ESV). In other words, he trusted that God would fulfill the promise He had made. Abram’s attempt to number the stars in the night sky had been quickly followed by God’s bold assertion, “So shall your offspring be” (Genesis 15:5 ESV).  And Abram had taken God at His word.

Then, after declaring His plan to give Abram innumerable descendants, God reiterated His promise to provide Canaan as their future homeland.

“I am the Lord who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess.” – Genesis 15:7 ESV

God was simply reminding Abram of the promise that He had earlier made.

“Look as far as you can see in every direction—north and south, east and west. I am giving all this land, as far as you can see, to you and your descendants as a permanent possession. And I will give you so many descendants that, like the dust of the earth, they cannot be counted! Go and walk through the land in every direction, for I am giving it to you.” – Genesis 13:14-17 NLT

But while Abram believed that God could and would fulfill those promises, he was still filled with apprehension and nagging doubts. As a finite human being, he couldn’t help but look at the circumstances surrounding his life and wonder how God was going to pull off what appeared to be an impossible feat. From Abram’s limited perspective, it appeared as if the odds were against him. He was old and his wife was barren. And, while he had successfully defeated the armies of the four kings of Mesopotamia, he knew the land of Canaan was occupied by more nations than he could ever hope to defeat with his small militia. In fact, God would even accentuate the impossible odds that Abram faced when He later declared, “To your offspring I will give this land…the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites and the Jebusites” (Genesis 15:19-21 ESV). 

That’s a formidable list of potential foes that will have to be defeated before Abram can occupy the land. And, according to Genesis 14:14, Abram had only 318 trained fighters at his disposal. The deck was stacked against him. And add to that the problem of Sarai’s infertility, and it is no wonder that Abram had questions for God.

“O Sovereign Lord, how can I be sure that I will actually possess it?” – Genesis 15:8 NLT

Abram needed proof. It wasn’t that he no longer believed God, it was just that he desperately needed a tangible sign to help fortify and solidify his belief. Abram’s struggle was normal and natural, and he was not the only God-follower who needed a sign to bolster their faith. Moses, the man who was recording the life of Abram, knew what it was like to struggle with doubts. When he had received his call to deliver the people of Israel from their captivity in Egypt, Moses had declared his doubts that the people would believe he had been sent by God.

“What if they won’t believe me or listen to me? What if they say, ‘The Lord never appeared to you’?” – Exodus 4:1 NLT

In response, God told had Moses to take his shepherd’s staff and throw it on the ground. When Abram obeyed, the staff transformed into a snake. Then, God told Moses to pick the snake up by the tail. Once again, Moses did as he was told.

So Moses reached out and grabbed it, and it turned back into a shepherd’s staff in his hand.” – Exodus 4:4 NLT

This “sign” was meant to provide Moses with faith and it was to serve as proof to the people of Israel that Moses had been sent by God.

“Perform this sign,” the Lord told him. “Then they will believe that the Lord, the God of their ancestors—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob—really has appeared to you.” – Exodus 4:5 NLT

Belief and unbelief can actually coexist at the same time. And nowhere is this idea better illustrated than in the gospel of Mark. He records an encounter between Jesus and a man whose son was possessed by a demon. In Jesus’ absence, the disciples had attempted to cast out the demon but had failed. So, Jesus asked the father how long the boy had been possessed. To which the father replied, “From childhood…it has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us” (Mark 9:21-22 NLT). This man was desperate. He wanted to see his boy set free from this devastating and life-threatening disorder. And he hoped that Jesus might be able to do what the disciples had failed to do.

While the man had sought out the rabbi from Nazareth, believing that He had the power to heal and cast out demons, Jesus sensed the man’s lingering doubt. In earshot of the man, the disciples, and the rest of the crowd that had assembled, Jesus declared, “All things are possible for one who believes” (Mark 9:23 NLT). To which the father immediately responded, “I believe; help my unbelief! (Mark 9:24 NLT).

This honest statement from a grieving father represents the heart cry of every child of God. Saddled by a finite perspective and equipped with a faith that is burdened down by a sinful nature that is predisposed to doubt and disobey God, every believer finds himself struggling with unbelief. But God the Father, just like God the Son, is always willing to bolster unbelief. And so, rather than chastising Abram for his request for a sign, God patiently and powerfully obliged His reluctant servant.

But God didn’t simply perform a miracle like He had with Moses. Instead, He involved Abram in the process, by ordering him to gather “a three-year-old heifer, a three-year-old female goat, a three-year-old ram, a turtledove, and a young pigeon” (Genesis 15:9 NLT). After checking off all the items on his God-ordained shopping list, Abram brought the animals to God and proceeded to prepare them for sacrifice.

God was commanding Abram to prepare a covenant ceremony. This would have been a common occurrence in Abram’s day that was meant to seal a bilateral covenant between two parties. The animals were killed then split down the middle. The two halves were then separated, forming a pathway between them. To seal their agreement, the two parties would walk together between the lifeless bodies of the sacrificed animals, signifying their commitment to remain faithful to the covenant agreement or face the same fate as the animals. It was a blood covenant.

But after completing his assignment, Abram had to spend the next hours fending off the birds of prey that were attempting to consume the carcasses of the sacrificed animals. Exhausted by the effort, Abram eventually fell asleep. His attempts to drive off the “unclean” scavengers proved too much for him. And this failure to preserve the sacrifice was meant to reveal Abram’s complete dependence upon God. As Abram slept, “a terrifying darkness came down over him” (Genesis 15:12 NLT). Even in his unconscious state, Abram sensed a feeling of dread. Something terrible was about to happen. He had fallen asleep with the disturbing image of the dismembered animals being attacked by ravenous birds seared in his brain. And this seemed to conjure up a foreboding sense of dread.

“…Abram driving off the birds of prey from the dismembered pieces portrays him defending his descendants from the attacks of foreign nations. Genesis itself tells of a number of attacks by foreigners against the children of Abraham and it already looks forward to the sojourn in Egypt.” – Thomas L. Constable, Notes on Genesis

In the midst of Abram’s fitful and fearful sleep, God spoke to him, affirming that his feelings of dread were well justified. There were difficult days in store for His descendants. God’s fulfillment of the promise to give the land of Canaan to Abram’s descendants would be delayed by a seeming tragedy.

“You can be sure that your descendants will be strangers in a foreign land, where they will be oppressed as slaves for 400 years. – Genesis 15:13 NLT

This was probably not the sign Abram had been seeking. It only seemed to confirm his lingering doubts and fears about the promises of God. But God followed this dose of bad news with a confident assurance of a glorious outcome.

But I will punish the nation that enslaves them, and in the end they will come away with great wealth. (As for you, you will die in peace and be buried at a ripe old age.) After four generations your descendants will return here to this land, for the sins of the Amorites do not yet warrant their destruction.” – Genesis 15:14-16 NLT

God was letting Abram know that His plans and His promise were long-term in nature, and their fulfillment was not up to Abram. In fact, as Abram slept, God ratified the covenant between them. In a normal covenant ceremony, both parties would have walked together between the carcasses, forming a bilateral agreement. But this covenant was unilateral in nature. When the sun went down and darkness descended on the land, “a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces” (Genesis 15:17 ESV). The presence of God, symbolized by smoke and fire, passed along the pathway and ratified the covenant. God was holding Himself accountable to keep the covenant He was making with Abram and his descendants. And this imagery of smoke and fire would become a recurring theme for the Israelites as God led them from Egypt to the promised land by a pillar of fire by night and a pillar of smoke by day (Exodus 13:21).

God gave Abram a glimpse into the future. And while it would have its fair share of dark days, Abram could rest in the knowledge that God was in full control of the outcome. It would all happen according to His sovereign will and by virtue of His unwavering faithfulness. None of it hinged on Abram’s faith. God was going to do what He promised to do. His plan was perfect and infallible. The promise of a seed and an inheritance would be fulfilled, whether Abram believed or not. The covenant ceremony was intended to assure Abram that the outcome was completely up to God, and He would not disappoint. Yes, the future would be filled with dark days and disappointing setbacks, but they were all part of God’s plan. A barren wife, a 400-year delay, and the presence of powerful foes would not be enough to thwart the plans of God.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

A Call and a Commitment

1 Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Genesis 12:1-3 ESV

With the opening verses of chapter 12, Moses provides his Hebrew readers with an important history lesson that solidifies their unique role in God’s redemptive plan for all mankind. For generations, the Jews had rightfully viewed themselves as God’s chosen people. They considered themselves to be a people who had been set apart by God and declared to be His “treasured possession.” Those were the very words that Moses had communicated to them not long after God delivered them out of captivity in Egypt.

“Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the people of Israel: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’” – Exodus 19:3-6 ESV

Years later, when the people of Israel were standing on the border of Canaan, preparing to enter into the land that God had promised to give them, Moses reminded them of their privileged position as God’s set-apart people.

For you are a holy people, who belong to the LORD your God. Of all the people on earth, the LORD your God has chosen you to be his own special treasure.” – Deuteronomy 7:6 NLT

When reading the story of Abram’s call, it is essential to keep this unique relationship between God and the nation of Israel in mind. The original audience to whom Moses wrote would have relished this retelling of their storied history, but it’s likely that they missed some of the key messages that God had intended for them to hear. They would have brightened at the mention of Abram’s name. This would have been the part of the story where they sat up and took notice. God’s call of Abram had been the impetus for their very existence.

And while that was true, there is something far more significant in the story of Abram’s call than the formation of a single, set-apart nation. For generations, the descendants of Abram had missed the divine purpose behind their existence. They had not earned their favored status with God. The Almighty had not looked down from heaven, noticed their righteous behavior, and decided to reward them with a promotion. In fact, Moses had fully dispelled any thought of their favored status being a reward.

“The LORD did not set his heart on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other nations, for you were the smallest of all nations! Rather, it was simply that the LORD loves you, and he was keeping the oath he had sworn to your ancestors.” – Deuteronomy 7:7-8 NLT

That last line is the key to understanding Genesis 12. The Hebrews, as descendants of Abram, had been created by God. Despite their long and storied history, they had not always existed. There had been a time when not a single Jew walked the face of the earth. Even Abram was not of Jewish descent. He was a Chaldean. But from this one man came a people whom God would set apart. Like the rest of the universe in Genesis 1, the Hebrew people would be created by God, ex nihilo (out of nothing). And the 12th chapter of Genesis begins the story of this “new creation” by God.

The apostle Peter picked up on this theme when writing his first letter. He was addressing Christians who were living in Asia Minor and suffering persecution because of their faith. At one point in his letter, he describes them as “aliens and strangers” (1 Peter 2:11), living in the midst of the spiritual darkness that surrounded them. And he used language that compared them to the people of Israel.

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. – 1 Peter 2:9-10 ESV

That last line is critical. At one time, these people had not been “a people.” Oh, they existed, but they lacked a relationship with God. The apostle Paul addressed the Gentile believers in Ephesus with a similar thought.

…remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. – Ephesians 2:12 BSB

And Paul went on to remind them of the dramatic transformation that God had brought about in their lives.

Therefore you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of God’s household… – Ephesians 2:19 BSB

So, back to Genesis 12. With the opening line of the chapter, Moses describes God as sovereignly inserting Himself into the affairs of humanity once again. After all the genealogical lists describing the various lines of Shem, Ham, and Japheth, God focuses His attention on one man: Abram. And to this one individual, God issues a call and provides a promise.

“Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” – Genesis 12:1-3 ESV

According to chapter 11, Abram had been born in Ur of the Chaldeans, located in the land of Shinar. But at one point, his father had made the decision to move his entire family to Canaan. The text provides is no explanation for this costly and difficult relocation. But it is not difficult to see the sovereign hand of God orchestrating this entire affair.

It would have taken a great deal of time and effort to make the long journey from Ur to Canaan. Because the arid and impassable Arabian Desert was located immediately east of Ur, Terah was forced to take a time-consuming detour that eventually led them to Haran. And, once in Haran, Terah had a change of heart and decided to settle down. but God had other plans for Abram. In time, Haran became home to Abram. He too settled down and began to put down roots. But at some point, God commanded him to leave everything behind.

“Leave your native country, your relatives, and your father’s family, and go to the land that I will show you. – Genesis 12:1 NLT

This was a huge “ask” on God’s part. In those days, family ties were essential to survival. By this time in human history, the world had become a hostile place occupied by disparate people groups based on clans and tribal relationships. After God had scattered the nations across the face of the earth (Genesis 11:9), territorial boundaries and indigenous communities had become commonplace. Everyone had staked out their claims and was protecting their particular piece of the global pie. So, it would not have been easy for Abram to leave the safety and security of his clan behind.

But God’s command came with a promise. He was going to provide Abram with a new home in a new land. And it just happened to be the very same land that Terah had intended as his family’s destination. Perhaps Terah had given up on Canaan because he heard it was already occupied by other, more powerful clans. But this would prove to be no problem for God. For the first time since God had placed Adam in Eden, a man was going to be given a specific tract of land to occupy. And like Eden, Canaan was a beautiful and fruitful land, “a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:8 ESV).

According to God, this new land would become the sole possession of Abram’s descendants. In a sense, Canaan had Abram’s name on the deed. And it would be in this land that God would bless Abram and produce through him “a great nation.”

But there is a problem. It was mentioned in chapter 11 but only in passing. In the listing of Terah’s descendants, Abram is described as taking a wife for himself – a woman named Sarai. And then, almost as an aside, the test reveals, “Now Sarai was barren; she had no child” (Genesis 11:30 ESV). Abram would have been completely unaware of Sarai’s condition. But God knew. And yet, knowing that Sarai was incapable of bearing children, God declared that Abram would become the father of a great nation. God was going to bless Abram by giving him offspring. And those offspring would become a blessing to all the nations of the earth. An undeserving man and his barren wife would become the means by which God would pour out His blessings on all humanity.

And this is the point that the Hebrew people tended to miss. They considered themselves to be blessed by God because they were descendants of Abram. But they neglected to remember that their blessing came with a responsibility: They were to have been a blessing to the nations. God had set apart Abram and all his descendants so that they might serve as His representatives to the nations. God had promised to make them His “treasured possession among all peoples” (Exodus 19:5 ESV). But they had a job to do.

…you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation… – Exodus 19:6 ESV

Priests were intended to be the mediators between God and man. The Hebrew people had been set apart by God so that they might minister on His behalf to all the nations of the earth. But they had proved to be unfaithful priests and far from a holy nation. But God’s promise would still be fulfilled. Because it would be through the line of Abram that He would bring the offspring through whom all the nations of the earth would be blessed. Jesus would accomplish what the nation of Israel had failed to do.

“I am the Lord; I have called you in righteousness;
    I will take you by the hand and keep you;
I will give you as a covenant for the people,
    a light for the nations… ” – Isaiah 42:6 ESV

“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
    to raise up the tribes of Jacob
    and to bring back the preserved of Israel;
I will make you as a light for the nations,
    that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” – Isaiah 49:6 ESV

That is what sets this chapter apart. In it is contained the hope of all eternity. The coming of the Messiah is weaved into the fabric of Abram’s call and provides the underlying foundation for God’s promise of future blessing for all mankind.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

What Are You Waiting For? Rejoice!

“Before she was in labor
    she gave birth;
before her pain came upon her
    she delivered a son.
Who has heard such a thing?
    Who has seen such things?
Shall a land be born in one day?
    Shall a nation be brought forth in one moment?
For as soon as Zion was in labor
    she brought forth her children.
Shall I bring to the point of birth and not cause to bring forth?”
    says the Lord;
“shall I, who cause to bring forth, shut the womb?”
    says your God.

10 “Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her,
    all you who love her;
rejoice with her in joy,
    all you who mourn over her;
11 that you may nurse and be satisfied
    from her consoling breast;
that you may drink deeply with delight
    from her glorious abundance.”

12 For thus says the Lord:
“Behold, I will extend peace to her like a river,
    and the glory of the nations like an overflowing stream;
and you shall nurse, you shall be carried upon her hip,
    and bounced upon her knees.
13 As one whom his mother comforts,
    so I will comfort you;
    you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.
14 You shall see, and your heart shall rejoice;
    your bones shall flourish like the grass;
and the hand of the Lord shall be known to his servants,
    and he shall show his indignation against his enemies. Isaiah 66:7-14 ESV

As the book of Isaiah comes to a close, we see God attempting to assure His chosen people that they have reason to hope. In spite of all that was presently taking place around them and the judgment God had promised to bring on them, they had reason to rejoice. Because God was not going to forget them. He would not completely abandon them. And to drive home His point, God reminds them of just how quickly they had become a nation. He describes Zion as a pregnant woman. Zion is synonymous with Jerusalem, the city of God, and Mount Zion is where the city of Jerusalem is located.

So, in verse seven, God describes Zion as having given birth to a son. But in verse eight He clarifies that the son is representative of a nation or people. And the birth of this nation was extremely quick and relatively free from pain. Like a woman who gives birth before her labor pains start, the nation of Israel came on the scene in a relatively short period of time and without a great deal of emotional or physical travail. This does not mean that the nation of Israel had a pain-free path to becoming a major force in that area of the world. They fought many battles and faced a variety of enemies, but God brought them to power and prominence in a relatively short period of time. It was His doing and, therefore, it was a miracle.

And yet, here they were facing the very real threat of destruction at the hands of the Babylonians. God had clearly told them that their city would be defeated, their temple destroyed, and their people deported to Babylon as captives. Which is why God reminds them that what He did once, He could do again.

“Would I ever bring this nation to the point of birth
    and then not deliver it?” asks the Lord.
“No! I would never keep this nation from being born,”
    says your God. – Isaiah 66:9 NLT

Yes, they were going to fall to the Babylonians and they would be removed from the land. But God was promising to restore them one day. They would be reborn as a nation. And while this prophecy would be fulfilled in part when the remnant returned to Judah under the leadership of Ezra and Zerubbabel, then later under Nehemiah, there is much about God’s promise that remains unfulfilled.

While a remnant did return to Judah and Jerusalem after 70 years of captivity in Babylon, the nation of Israel has never experienced anything remotely similar to the former glory it enjoyed under the reigns of David and Solomon. There is no king in Jerusalem. And, while the Jewish people once again live in the land of promise and occupy the city of Jerusalem, they are surrounded by enemies and under constant threat of attack. Yet, God tells the people of Judah in Isaiah’s day to “Rejoice with Jerusalem! Be glad with her, all you who love her and all you who mourn for her” (Isaiah 66:10 NLT). What a strange thing to say to a people who are facing inevitable defeat and deportation. Why would God tell them to rejoice over a city that is facing destruction? Because He has plans in store for the city and the nation of which they were unaware. And He outlines the nature of those plans in two short verses.

“I will give Jerusalem a river of peace and prosperity.
    The wealth of the nations will flow to her.
Her children will be nursed at her breasts,
    carried in her arms, and held on her lap.
I will comfort you there in Jerusalem
    as a mother comforts her child.” – Isaiah 66:12-13 NLT

This is where the as-yet nature of this promise can be seen. He promises peace and prosperity. He describes a day when the nations will flow to Jerusalem to honor her, not destroy her. And it is clear that these things have not yet taken place. They remain unfulfilled. But just as Zion gave birth to a nation once before, it will experience another miraculous and pain-free delivery of God’s covenant people. In a remarkably short period of time, God will repopulate Zion with His people and when they see it happen, they will rejoice. In fact, God says, “Everyone will see the Lord’s hand of blessing on his servants – and his anger against his enemies” (Isaiah 66:14 NLT). 

The scene being described here is eschatological in nature. It involved end-times events that remain as-yet unfulfilled. But God is promising His people that they will happen. Their inevitability is assured and, therefore, even the people of God in Isaiah’s day had reason to rejoice. The prophet Jeremiah records the words of God assuring His people of His intentions to restore them. In a sense, they will be born again, all according to His grace and mercy.

“Nevertheless, the time will come when I will heal Jerusalem’s wounds and give it prosperity and true peace. I will restore the fortunes of Judah and Israel and rebuild their towns. I will cleanse them of their sins against me and forgive all their sins of rebellion. Then this city will bring me joy, glory, and honor before all the nations of the earth! The people of the world will see all the good I do for my people, and they will tremble with awe at the peace and prosperity I provide for them.” – Jeremiah 33:6-9 NLT

Three times in this passage God says, “I will….” He promises to heal, restore, rebuild, cleanse, and forgive. And He describes a day when the city of Jerusalem and the people of Israel will once again bring Him joy, glory, and honor. And Isaiah recorded similar words of promise earlier in his book.

The Lord will comfort Israel again
    and have pity on her ruins.
Her desert will blossom like Eden,
    her barren wilderness like the garden of the Lord.
Joy and gladness will be found there.
    Songs of thanksgiving will fill the air. – Isaiah 51:3 NLT

And Isaiah’s words were not wishful thinking, but were based on the promise of God.

“My mercy and justice are coming soon.
    My salvation is on the way.
    My strong arm will bring justice to the nations.
All distant lands will look to me
    and wait in hope for my powerful arm.” – Isaiah 51:5 NLT

And Isaiah is so convinced of God’s faithfulness, that he pleads with Him to fulfill His promise sooner than later.

Wake up, wake up, O Lord! Clothe yourself with strength!
    Flex your mighty right arm!
Rouse yourself as in the days of old
    when you slew Egypt, the dragon of the Nile.
Are you not the same today,
    the one who dried up the sea,
making a path of escape through the depths
    so that your people could cross over? – Isaiah 51:9-10 NLT

He knew, based on past history, that God was fully capable of doing all that He had promised. It was just a matter of when He would do what He said He would do. And as far as Isaiah was concerned, he wanted God to fulfill His promises in his own lifetime. But, whether Isaiah lived to see God’s promises fulfilled, he was convinced they would happen just as God had said they would.

Those who have been ransomed by the Lord will return.
    They will enter Jerusalem singing,
    crowned with everlasting joy.
Sorrow and mourning will disappear,
    and they will be filled with joy and gladness. – Isaiah 51:9-11 NLT

While the fulfillment of these promises has not yet taken place, the rejoicing should be. All those who have placed their hope in the reality of a living, all-powerful God should find reason to rejoice in the promises of God. While He has done great things and His past exploits are deserving of our praise, there is much that remains yet to be done. But God is faithful. He is a covenant-keeping God who never fails to do what He has promised to do. And with all that He has said He will do clearly articulated for us by Isaiah, we have more than enough reason to rejoice – even now.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

You Will Not Be Forgotten

21 Remember these things, O Jacob,
    and Israel, for you are my servant;
I formed you; you are my servant;
    O Israel, you will not be forgotten by me.
22 I have blotted out your transgressions like a cloud
    and your sins like mist;
return to me, for I have redeemed you.

23 Sing, O heavens, for the Lord has done it;
    shout, O depths of the earth;
break forth into singing, O mountains,
    O forest, and every tree in it!
For the Lord has redeemed Jacob,
    and will be glorified[c] in Israel.

24 Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer,
    who formed you from the womb:
“I am the Lord, who made all things,
    who alone stretched out the heavens,
    who spread out the earth by myself,
25 who frustrates the signs of liars
    and makes fools of diviners,
who turns wise men back
    and makes their knowledge foolish,
26 who confirms the word of his servant
    and fulfills the counsel of his messengers,
who says of Jerusalem, ‘She shall be inhabited,’
    and of the cities of Judah, ‘They shall be built,
    and I will raise up their ruins’;
27 who says to the deep, ‘Be dry;
    I will dry up your rivers’;
28 who says of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd,
    and he shall fulfill all my purpose’;
saying of Jerusalem, ‘She shall be built,’
    and of the temple, ‘Your foundation shall be laid.’”
– Isaiah 44:21-28

By now, we have seen that God has a number of things in store for the people of Judah. One involves their impending destruction at the hands of the Babylonians. God has already informed King Hezekiah that this would happen.

“Behold, the days are coming, when all that is in your house, and that which your fathers have stored up till this day, shall be carried to Babylon. Nothing shall be left, says the Lord.” – Isaiah 39:6 ESV

And to make matters worse, God informed Hezekiah that some of his sons would “be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon” (Isaiah 39:7 ESV). But God had also revealed that, while Judah would “receive double for her sins” (Isaiah 40:2 ESV), He would not abandon them completely. Yes, they would face His righteous wrath in the form of their defeat and exile, but He would once again show them His unmerited favor. Isaiah was to say to the cities of Judah, “Behold your God!” He was to assure them, “Behold, the Lord God comes with might” (Isaiah 40:9-10 ESV).

In chapter 41, God reminded the people of Judah that they belonged to Him and, no matter what happened, they had nothing to fear. He was going to care for them, even in their greatest times of distress.

“‘You are my servant,
    I have chosen you and not cast you off’;
fear not, for I am with you;
    be not dismayed, for I am your God;
I will strengthen you, I will help you,
    I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”
– Isaiah 41:9-10 ESV

“For I, the Lord your God,
    hold your right hand;
it is I who say to you, ‘Fear not,
    I am the one who helps you.’”
– Isaiah 41:13 ESV

In chapter 42, God revealed His plans to send His Servant, who would one day “bring forth justice to the nations” (Isaiah 42:1 ESV). This obvious reference to Jesus, the Messiah, lets the people of Judah know that God has something remarkable in plan for them in the future.

“I am the Lord; I have called you in righteousness;
    I will take you by the hand and keep you;
I will give you as a covenant for the people,
    a light for the nations,
   to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
    from the prison those who sit in darkness.”
– Isaiah 42:6-7 ESV

But God has more to say about the matter. In chapter 43, He let them know that there was even more good news coming. Their exile would be followed by a second exodus from captivity and a re-entrance into the land of promise.

“Fear not, for I am with you;
    I will bring your offspring from the east,
    and from the west I will gather you.
I will say to the north, Give up,
    and to the south, Do not withhold;
bring my sons from afar
    and my daughters from the end of the earth,
everyone who is called by my name,
    whom I created for my glory,
    whom I formed and made.”
– Isaiah 43:6-7 ESV

God was not going to forget Judah. Yet, when the Babylonians began invading their territories and commenced the slow and methodical pillaging of their cities and towns, it was going to feel as if God was nowhere to be found. They would assume He had abandoned them, leaving them powerless and defenseless before their enemies. But, once again, God assures them that nothing could be further from the truth.

“Remember these things, O Jacob,
    and Israel, for
you are my servant;
I formed you; you are my servant;
    O Israel, you will not be forgotten by me.
I have blotted out your transgressions like a cloud
    and your sins like mist;
return to me, for I have redeemed you.”
– Isaiah 44:6-7 ESV

Not only would God not forget them, but He would also forgive them. He would remove their sins from them. All He asked is that they would remember that He alone is God. He called on them to recognize the futility and foolishness of false gods. An idol made by the hands of a man was incapable of remembering or redeeming. A false god can’t forgive sins. Only God can do that.

In response, Isaiah calls on the whole creative order to praise God for His salvation of Israel. And his statement regarding Israel’s glorious restoration by God is in the past-tense, as if it has already happened.

For the Lord has redeemed Jacob,
    and will be glorified in Israel.
– Isaiah 44:23 ESV

And the following verses seem to provide an explanation for this amazing act of redemption and restoration. God is described as the Lord, Jehovah, their Redeemer. And that description is followed by a series of statements that all begin with the word, “who,” which provides further explanation of God’s character.

who formed you from the womb – vs 24

who alone stretched out the heavens – vs 24

who spread out the earth by myself – vs 24

who frustrates the signs of liars and makes fools of diviners – vs 25

who turns wise men back and makes their knowledge foolish – vs 25

who confirms the word of his servant and fulfills the counsel of his messengers – vs 26

who says of Jerusalem, “She shall be inhabited,” and of the cities of Judah, “They shall be built, and I will raise up their ruins” – vs 26

who says to the deep, “Be dry; I will dry up your rivers” – vs 27

who says of Cyrus, “He is my shepherd, and he shall fulfill all my purpose” – vs 28

All of these statements set apart God as distinct and wholly different from any other god. He is the one true God. These are statements of authority, sovereignty, and unparalleled power. So, when God says of Jerusalem, “‘She shall be built,’ and of the temple, ‘Your foundation shall be laid’” (Isaiah 44:28 ESV), it is guaranteed to happen. The people of Judah would end up in exile in Babylon, because God had decreed it. But they would also be restored to the land, because God had declared it. And here is God, revealing that He will use Cyrus, a Persian king, to fulfill His will for Judah. This remarkable prophecy was fulfilled to the letter when, after Judah had spent 70 years in exile in Babylon, King Cyrus issued is decree giving them royal permission and provision to return to the land and rebuilt their city and temple.

In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom and also put it in writing:

“Thus says Cyrus king of Persia: The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and rebuild the house of the Lord, the God of Israel—he is the God who is in Jerusalem. And let each survivor, in whatever place he sojourns, be assisted by the men of his place with silver and gold, with goods and with beasts, besides freewill offerings for the house of God that is in Jerusalem.” – Ezra 1:1-4 ESV

God did not forget. And He did blot out their sins, allowing them to return to the land of promise. His grace arranged it all, including the king’s decree, the provision of funds, the rebuilding of the city and its walls, and the restoration of the temple and the sacrificial system. He proved Himself faithful. And this amazing story of God’s covenant-faithfulness should encourage us today. He always follows through. He always keeps His word. He never forgets and He never forsakes.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)
Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

I Do Not Forsake Them

10 Sing to the Lord a new song,
    his praise from the end of the earth,
you who go down to the sea, and all that fills it,
    the coastlands and their inhabitants.
11 Let the desert and its cities lift up their voice,
    the villages that Kedar inhabits;
let the habitants of Sela sing for joy,
    let them shout from the top of the mountains.
12 Let them give glory to the Lord,
    and declare his praise in the coastlands.
13 The Lord goes out like a mighty man,
    like a man of war he stirs up his zeal;
he cries out, he shouts aloud,
    he shows himself mighty against his foes.

14 For a long time I have held my peace;
    I have kept still and restrained myself;
now I will cry out like a woman in labor;
    I will gasp and pant.
15 I will lay waste mountains and hills,
    and dry up all their vegetation;
I will turn the rivers into islands,
    and dry up the pools.
16 And I will lead the blind
    in a way that they do not know,
in paths that they have not known
    I will guide them.
I will turn the darkness before them into light,
    the rough places into level ground.
These are the things I do,
    and I do not forsake them.
17 They are turned back and utterly put to shame,
    who trust in carved idols,
who say to metal images,
    “You are our gods.” –
Isaiah 42:10-17 ESV

At hearing the news of the coming of God’s Servant, Isaiah can’t contain his excitement and breaks out into song. Verses 10-13 contain a joyous hymn of praise to Yahweh for His goodness and greatness. God’s Servant, the Messiah, was going to bring redemption to the people of God. He will bring justice to the nations and be a demonstration of God’s righteousness on earth. God had made it clear that His Servant would “be a light to guide the nations.” He would “open the eyes of the blind” and “free the captives from prison, releasing those who sit in dark dungeons” (Isaiah 42:6-7 NLT). And Isaiah saw this as ample reason to praise God.

But Isaiah’s song was also a call for others to join him in singing the praises of God. He addresses those who sail the seas and those who live in the deserts. From the farthest coastal towns to villages in the mountains, all the inhabitants of the earth were to recognize and respond to the unequaled power of God. As far as Isaiah was concerned, this was to be a global celebration of the one true God

Let the whole world glorify the Lord;
    let it sing his praise.
– Isaiah 42:12 NLT

And the reason behind Isaiah’s enthusiastic call for universal praise of God was quite simple.

The Lord goes out like a mighty man,
    like a man of war he stirs up his zeal;
he cries out, he shouts aloud,
    he shows himself mighty against his foes.
– Isaiah 42:13 ESV

It is important to recall that, at the time Isaiah is singing this son, the situation in Judah remained unchanged. There was still the looming threat of invasion. God had already told Isaiah and King Hezekiah that the nation of Judah would fall to the Babylonians. And yet, here is Isaiah singing about God marching forth like a mighty hero and crushing all his enemies, as if it had already happened.

For Isaiah, the word of God was all he needed. If God said it, Isaiah believed it. He had learned to take God at His word and to trust Him to do what He had promised. God had said He would send His Servant and that was enough for Isaiah. He would put his trust in God.

And God would eventually prove Himself trustworthy – yet again. The day would come when He would use King Cyrus to decree the return of the people from captivity in Babylon. This Persian king would even help fund the return of the remnant to Jerusalem and help defray the cost of rebuilding the city and the temple of God. Yahweh, the very one who brought judgment on the people of Judah for their rebellion against Him, would be the one to restore them to the land.

And one day, God would send His Son to earth, in the form of an innocent baby, in order to bring salvation to the people of God. Born a Jew, Jesus would bring His message of the Kingdom to His own people, calling them to repentance and offering them a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be restored to a right relationship with Yahweh. But sadly, as the apostle John records, “He came to his own people, and even they rejected him” (John 1:11 NLT). The Servant of God was sent by God to sacrificially serve the people of God. Mark tells us, He “came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45 NLT). But Jesus’ offer of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Him alone was rejected by the majority of His own people. They refused His gracious offer of redemption.

And yet, there is a another day coming when Jesus will return to earth again. The Servant/Savior will come a second time, and He will bring redemption to the people of Israel. The prophet Ezekiel wrote about this coming day.

“Therefore, give the people of Israel this message from the Sovereign Lord: I am bringing you back, but not because you deserve it. I am doing it to protect my holy name, on which you brought shame while you were scattered among the nations. I will show how holy my great name is—the name on which you brought shame among the nations. And when I reveal my holiness through you before their very eyes, says the Sovereign Lord, then the nations will know that I am the Lord. For I will gather you up from all the nations and bring you home again to your land.” – Ezekiel 36:22-24 NLT

There is a sense in which this prophecy was fulfilled when the people were given permission to return to the land of Judah by King Cyrus. But if we continue to read God’s words, as recorded by Ezekiel, we will see that there is an as-yet-unfulfilled aspect to this prophecy.

“Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean. Your filth will be washed away, and you will no longer worship idols. And I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart.  And I will put my Spirit in you so that you will follow my decrees and be careful to obey my regulations. And you will live in Israel, the land I gave your ancestors long ago. You will be my people, and I will be your God.” – Ezekiel 36:25-28 NLT

God will accomplish all this through His Son, the Servant and Savior of Israel. God will use Jesus, the Messiah, to do for the people of Israel what they had been unable and unwilling to do for themselves. God will transform them into the faithful, obedient, children He had called them to be.

And, suddenly, God interrupts Isaiah’s song of praise with an announcement that is intended to bring assurance to Isaiah and the people of Judah. God admits that, from a human perspective, He has appeared to be silent and inactive. All kinds of things have happened around the people of Judah. There have been alliances made between nations, with the intent to defeat Judah. The Assyrians have plundered and pillaged their way through the land of Judah, leaving a wake of devastation in their path. They have even set up camp outside the walls of Jerusalem, threatening the city with destruction if the inhabitants refuse to surrender.

But all that was about to change. God describes Himself as a woman about to give birth. He is on the verge of delivery, not of a baby, but of salvation for His people. And while this imagery conveys a certain sense of immediacy, it does not mean that God’s salvation is right around the corner. It is meant to convey the idea of inevitability and certainty. Once a woman goes into labor, the baby is going to come, and there is nothing she can do to stop it. God is letting Isaiah and the people of Judah know that when the time comes for Him to act, He will do so. And He emphasizes the inevitability of it all by stating what He will do when the time comes.

I will level the mountains and hills
    and blight all their greenery.
I will turn the rivers into dry land
    and will dry up all the pools.
I will lead blind Israel down a new path,
    guiding them
along an unfamiliar way.
I will brighten the darkness before them
    and smooth out the road ahead of them.
Yes,
I will indeed do these things;
    
I will not forsake them.” – Isaiah 42:15-16 NLT

He will do all that He has promised to do. And the greatest challenge the people of Judah faced was taking God at His word. They were going to face some significant setbacks in the days ahead. There were going to be plenty of moments when God’s presence and power were difficult to comprehend. They would find themselves facing all kinds of difficulties that seemed to contradict the promises of God. But circumstances are always a lousy litmus test of God’s power and presence. Just because we can’t see God doesn’t mean He is not there. Too often, we allow the presence of trials to cause us to conclude that God is inactive or indifferent to our situation. We may even assume He lacks the power to do anything about our problem.

But this passage is meant to encourage faith in God, regardless of the circumstances. It is easy to praise God after the fact. It takes very little faith to sing His praises when the victory has been accomplished and we are on the winning side of the battle. But to praise Him based on nothing more than His word – that take real faith. That requires true trust. When God says, “I will,” He expects His child to respond, “I believe.” It’s all about trust. And God makes it clear that those who refuse to place their trust in anything or anyone but Him, will be disappointed.

“But those who trust in idols,
    who say, ‘You are our gods,’
    will be turned away in shame.”
– Isaiah 42:17 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)
Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The Rejected Rescuer.

17 “But as the time of the promise drew near, which God had granted to Abraham, the people increased and multiplied in Egypt 18 until there arose over Egypt another king who did not know Joseph. 19 He dealt shrewdly with our race and forced our fathers to expose their infants, so that they would not be kept alive. 20 At this time Moses was born; and he was beautiful in God’s sight. And he was brought up for three months in his father’s house, 21 and when he was exposed, Pharaoh’s daughter adopted him and brought him up as her own son. 22 And Moses was instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and he was mighty in his words and deeds.

23 “When he was forty years old, it came into his heart to visit his brothers, the children of Israel. 24 And seeing one of them being wronged, he defended the oppressed man and avenged him by striking down the Egyptian. 25 He supposed that his brothers would understand that God was giving them salvation by his hand, but they did not understand. 26 And on the following day he appeared to them as they were quarreling and tried to reconcile them, saying, ‘Men, you are brothers. Why do you wrong each other?’ 27 But the man who was wronging his neighbor thrust him aside, saying, ‘Who made you a ruler and a judge over us? 28 Do you want to kill me as you killed the Egyptian yesterday?’ 29 At this retort Moses fled and became an exile in the land of Midian, where he became the father of two sons.” – Acts 7:17-29 ESV

Stephen is subtle. He recounts the history of Israel, but he does so in such a way that he purposefully leaves out certain facts while highlighting others. At this point in his speech, he has transitioned to the point in Israel’s history where they are living in the land of Egypt. Having arrived 400 years earlier as Jacob’s small family unit of no more than 75, their numbers had exploded, And the situation in Egypt had dramatically changed. Joseph and the Pharaoh who had so graciously welcomed Jacob four centuries earlier are both dead. There was a new Pharaoh in charge and we know from the Exodus account that he feared the sheer numbers of the Israelites. So, he instituted a program of intense oppression and extermination, commanding that all the male babies born to the Israelites be killed. Yet God had other plans. But before we go there, let’s take a look at an interesting statement that Stephen made. In verses 17, it says, “But as the time of the promise drew near, which God had granted to Abraham…” What is Stephen referring to? What promise does he have in mind? If we go back to God’s original call of Abraham, recorded in the book of Genesis, God said to Abraham:

1 “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” – Genesis 12:1-3 ESV

Is this the promise to which Stephen is referring? Or is it tied to what God said some time later, recorded in chapter 17 of the book of Genesis?

4 “Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.” – Genesis 17:4-8 ESV

Was this the promise Stephen had in mind? Or was it this lesser emphasized, but just as significant promise God had made to Abraham regarding the 400-years of affliction his descendants would have to endure in Egypt?

13 “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. 14 But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. 15 As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. 16 And they shall come back here in the fourth generation…” – Genesis 15:13-16 ESV

The truth is, Stephen most likely had all these promises in mind. But he was emphasizing this particular promise because it was essential to the overall plan of God. They would have to be afflicted before they could be rescued. And it is interesting to note that, in the book of Exodus, Moses points out that their affliction by the Egyptians had a positive impact on their numbers. He states, “But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and the more they spread abroad” (Exodus 1:12 ESV). Even Pharaoh’s decree that the male babies be killed was met with resistance, as the Hebrew midwives refused to obey his command. And one of those babies to be spared was Moses. He would be rescued by the daughter of Pharaoh himself, being raised in his home like a son. And Stephen points out that the day came for Moses, when “it came into his heart to visit his brothers, the children of Israel” (Acts 7:23 ESV). This is a detail not found in the book of Exodus. Stephen seems to be saying that Moses, after 40 years of living as an Egyptian, was directed by God to visit his Hebrew brothers. And what he saw appalled him. He saw the suffering and the abuse. And his anger resulted in him taking the life of an Egyptian whom he had seen beating a Hebrew slave. And Stephen points out Moses’ motivation for doing what he did: “He supposed that his brothers would understand that God was giving them salvation by his hand, but they did not understand” (Acts 7:25 ESV). Even at that point in his life, Moses seemed to sense a divine call on his life. He had put two and two together and began to realize that he was in the same position Joseph had been in 400 years earlier, when he had been the second-most powerful man in the land of Egypt and had been used by God to spare the Israelites from the famine in the land. Moses wanted to rescue his people. He wanted to use his power and influence to make a difference. But his efforts failed. Rather than viewing Moses as their rescuer and redeemer, the people of Israel sarcastically responded: “Who made you a ruler and a judge over us?” (Acts 7:27 ESV). They questioned his authority. They refused to accept his validity as a rescuer. So, Moses was forced to run for his life, escaping to the land of Midian, where he would remain for 40 years.

Remember, the audience to whom Stephen was speaking was entirely Jewish in makeup. It included the high priest and the members of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish council. These men were Sadducees and Pharisees, powerful religious leaders who would have known well the story of Moses. But Stephen is pointing out something they knew, but in a way to make a point they had failed to see. Moses was the God-ordained redeemer of the people of Israel. And yet, when he showed up on the scene, he was rejected. They failed to see him for who he was. In the midst of their captivity and suffering, they had chosen to reject the very one God had sent to be their rescuer. And the other thing Stephen is subtly pointing out is that the 400-years of captivity in Egypt had been part of God’s promise to Abraham. Their captivity had to precede their redemption. And yet, through it all, God had been fulfilling the promises He had made to Abraham. He was making of them a great nation. He was blessing them by abundantly multiplying their numbers. But He had chosen to do it in the land of Egypt, not within the land of Canaan. And He was doing it apart from the law, which had not yet been given. He was doing it without a Temple or a sacrificial system. All the things the Israelites held near and dear, and which they had accused Stephen of demeaning or speaking ill of, were non-existent when God was blessing the people of Israel in Egypt. The land of Canaan, the Temple, the Law and the sacrificial system had all become sources of inordinate pride for the people of Israel. They saw themselves as God’s chosen people because of those things. They saw no need for this Savior of whom Peter, John, Stephen and the rest of the disciples spoke. They didn’t need rescue. They didn’t need a redeemer. And like their ancestors, who had rejected Moses, the Jews listening to Stephen had been guilty of rejecting Jesus. In the opening chapter of his gospel, the apostle John recorded the rejection of Jesus by the Jewish people.

10 He came into the very world he created, but the world didn’t recognize him. 11 He came to his own people, and even they rejected him. – John 1:10-11 NLT

Like Moses, Jesus had been rejected. And as in the case of Moses, God was not done with Jesus or the people of Israel. There would be a period of delay. Moses would spend 40 years in the wilderness of Midian, before he received God’s official call and commissioning. Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness, suffering hunger and thirst, and enduring the temptations of Satan, before, in “the fullness of time” (Galatians 4:4), He was sent by God to act as the Savior and Redeemer of His people.

Yes, the people of Israel were living in the land of Canaan. They had their glorious Temple and the sacrificial system that went with it. They had the law provided to them by Moses. But for hundreds of years they had lived under the oppression of nations like Rome. Ever since they had returned to the land during the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, they had lived without a king, and under the subjection of some foreign power. They were no better off than their ancestors who lived in Egypt. They needed salvation. They were in desperate need of rescue. But in response to God’s gracious offer of salvation, made possible through the death and resurrection of His own Son, the people of Israel were still sarcastically asking, “Who made you a ruler and a judge over us?

 

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 200z

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The Power of a Promise.

To give a human example, brothers: even with a man-made covenant, no one annuls it or adds to it once it has been ratified. Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ. This is what I mean: the law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void. For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise. – Galatians 3:15-18 ESV

As a former Pharisee, Paul had a scholarly understanding of the Old Testament. But it was after his conversion, when he had received the indwelling Holy Spirit, that Paul truly began to understand that the Old Testament was a foreshadowing of the coming Messiah, Jesus Christ. Post-conversion, his comprehension of the Scriptures was both magnified and clarified. Familiar passages took on a whole new meaning when he was able to view them through the lens of the gospel. In the case of Genesis 13:15 and 17:8, where Moses records God’s covenant to Abraham, Paul exegetes these all-too-familiar passages by revealing that through them, God had been promising the coming of Christ. He was the “seed” or “offspring” through whom all the nations would be blessed. God’s promise to Abraham would ultimately be fulfilled through Jesus. But what is Paul’s point in bringing this new understanding of God’s promise to light? He was attempting to answer the argument that the Mosaic law, which came after the giving of God had made His covenant with Abraham, somehow superseded or supplanted it.

On the contrary, Paul argues, God had made a binding covenant with Abraham and his “offspring.” That God-ordained covenant could not be nullified or broken. It was a unilateral covenant, made by God and could only be annulled by God. But Paul stresses that at no point did God revoke or replace the covenant, even when He had given Moses the law some 430 years later. In fact, Paul points out, the inheritance tied to the promise of God could be received only through the promise of God. It was not accessible any other way, especially not through the keeping of the law. And the inheritance of which Paul speaks is tied directly to the idea of justification by faith. This was the crux of the problem taking place among the Galatian believers. They were being told that their justification was tied to the keeping of the law, most specifically to God’s command regarding circumcision. In other words, they were being sold a bill of goods that promised them a right standing before God through law-keeping and self-effort, not faith in Christ alone.

Paul wrote to the Colossian believers:

May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy, giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. – Colossians 1:11-14 ESV

He prayed for the Ephesians…

that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints – Ephesians 1:17-18 ESV

For Paul, the promise of God made to Abraham and fulfilled in Christ, was all about the wonderful reality of a restored relationship with Him, available to both Jews and Gentiles. And this incredible gift was only available through faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ, His Son. It could not be attained through self-effort. Paul went on to tell the Ephesian believers that he wanted them to understand…

…what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places… – Ephesians 1:19-20 ESV

Our salvation, justification, sanctification and glorification are all tied to the work of Christ on our behalf. Our righteousness comes from Christ. Our right standing before God is as a result of His shed blood. Our future inheritance is tied His sacrificial death on the cross. All that we are and all that we hope to have is based on the finished work of Christ. And for that we have much to be grateful.

None of this negates the necessity of obedience to God in our lives. Faith and works are not an either/or proposition. For Paul, it was a matter of order or priority. Faith comes first. But true saving faith is always followed by good works. Works are the fruit of faith. Works cannot provide justification, but they can certainly prove it. As Paul told the believers in Ephesus, “we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10 ESV). Paul speaks of the inheritance made possible through the promise. That is directly tied to our justification with God. We have been made right with Him and enjoy a restored relationship with Him. Not only that, we are His sons and daughters, His heirs. Paul wrote to the believers in Rome: “This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring” (Romans 9:8 ESV). Just a few verses later in his letter to the Galatian believers, Paul reminds them, “if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Galatians 3:29 ESV).

Our privileged position as children and heirs of God is a direct result of the promise of God. And it was made available to us by the Son of God. When we place our faith in His saving work done on our behalf, rather than on our own attempts to earn God’s favor, we are made right with God and stand before Him as righteous. Not because of anything we have done, but because of what Christ has done for us.

Hold Fast.

Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. – Hebrews 10:19-25 ESV

There should be a proper response when we consider all that Jesus has done for us.

Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek. – Hebrews 5:8-10 ESV

…he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, this securing an eternal redemption. – Hebrews 9:12 ESV

And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him. – Hebrews 9:28 ESV

His sacrifice on our behalf should provide us with a confidence to come into the very presence of God, with “our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water” (Hebrews 10:22 ESV). When Jesus died, the veil in the temple that acted as a barrier into the Holy of Holies, was torn in two. “Then Jesus shouted out again, and he released his spirit. At that moment the curtain in the sanctuary of the Temple was torn in two, from top to bottom” (Matthew 27:50-51 NLT). That event was incredibly significant, because it removed, for all time, the veil of separation between man and God. Up until that time, the only person who could enter the Holy of Holies, where God’s presence was said to dwell, was the high priest. And his access was limited to a single day each year, the Day of Atonement, and he could enter only having sacrificed an animal for his own cleansing. If he failed to do so, he would die. And no one else was allowed into the presence of God. But that all changed when Jesus died. The veil was torn, and the barrier to God was removed. It was as Jesus had claimed: “I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture” (John 10:9 ESV). Those who have placed their faith in Jesus as their sin substitute can now enjoy access to God. As His sheep, they can enter into His presence without fear of death or rejection. The can go in and out and find pasture.

But this newly available access to God, made possible by the sacrifice of Jesus, should create in us not only a confident assurance, but a desire to live in obedience to His will. The author tells us to “consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together” (Hebrews 10:24-25 ESV). We are to pursue righteousness, not in the hopes of gaining God’s approval, but in gratefulness for the fact that we are already approved in His eyes. Our hearts have already been sprinkled clean. Our bodies have been washed with pure water. We stand before Him as holy. This does not mean we are without sin. Each of us still retains his old sin nature. We still have the capacity and propensity to sin. But our sins can no longer keep us apart from God. We have been extended forgiveness. We have been fully acquitted. And we have His promise that “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9 ESV). We have access into the Holy of Holies, at all times, where we can receive mercy, grace, and forgiveness – never condemnation.

So the author of Hebrews tells us to “hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful” (Hebrews 10:23 ESV). This is the same thought he expressed back in chapter six when he said, “we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us. We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain” (Hebrews 6:18-19 ESV). Earlier in that same chapter, he wrote, “And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises” (Hebrews 6:11-12 ESV). We must keep our focus on the promise to come. Our hope is to be based on the completed work of Christ. He is coming again. That is why the author tells us, “so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (Hebrews 9:28 ESV). He came, but our hope is based on the fact that He is coming again. And we are to hold fast to that reality. It is to provide us with the motivation we need to remain faithful until the end. It is to give us the encouragement we need to live obediently and not complacently. The apostle John reminds us, “And now, dear children, remain in fellowship with Christ so that when he returns, you will be full of courage and not shrink back from him in shame. Since we know that Christ is righteous, we also know that all who do what is right are God’s children” (1 John 2:28-29 NLT). It is our hope in Christ that gives us the help we need to live godly lives as we wait for His return. It is our faith in His return that provides us with the determination to remain faithful till the end. We must hold fast. We must finish strong. We must fight the good fight and finish the race set before us – “for he who promised is faithful” (Hebrews 10:23 ESV).

The Divine Witness.

But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me. And you also will bear witness, because you have been with me from the beginning. – John 15:26-27 ESV

Once again, Jesus is attempting to prepare His disciples for His imminent departure. In a matter of hours, His betrayal and arrest will take place and the disciples will find their world turned upside down by the events that will follow. So in this message, which has come to be known as the Upper Room Discourse, Jesus gave His disciples a glimpse into what was to come, including an assurance that they would have help after He had gone. He would send them a helper or advocate, in the form of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth. And according to all that Jesus said was going to happen to them after He was gone, they were going to need the Spirit’s help.

First, Jesus said that the world would hate them, just as it hated Him. And they were going to be first-hand witnesses as to just how much the world hated Jesus when they saw Him brutally crucified. They would watch as the crowds turned their joyful shouts of “Hosannah!” into angry screams of “Crucify Him!” But Jesus let them know that things were going to get even worse after His departure. “I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (John 15:19 ESV). He warned them that they were going to be persecuted. Why? Because of their relationship with Him and because they were going to be His representatives on earth after He returned to His Father.

So Jesus told them to abide in Him. “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5 ESV). But this statement had to confound the disciples, because Jesus was telling them that He was going away. He was leaving them. So how were they supposed to abide in Him when He was no longer going to be with them? How was He going to be in them if He was going to be absent from them? And how could Jesus say to them, “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full”? (John 15:11 ESV). Joy in the midst of persecution? How were they supposed to have fullness of joy at the thought of the death of their friend and teacher?

That’s where the Helper was going to come in. Jesus knew something they didn’t know. He knew that none of what He was asking them to do was going to be possible without help. They were incapable of surviving all that lie ahead without the aid of the Holy Spirit. The joy that would be in them would come in the form of the Holy Spirit. His presence would provide them with a constant internal reminder of all that Jesus had said and done when He was with them. The Spirit would make it possible for them to endure all the persecution that was coming and be fruitful in the process. They would not only survive, but thrive in the midst of abundant difficulty. They would discover a supernatural capacity to love selflessly and sacrificially, just as they were about to see Jesus do. The Spirit within them would bear witness to them regarding Jesus. The Holy Spirit would make sense of all the seeming madness regarding Jesus’ coming, miracles, teachings and startling death. The Spirit would provide undeniable proof of just who Jesus had claimed to be. His presence within them would prove that Jesus was still abiding with them. And as a result, they would become unwavering witnesses of Jesus, testifying of His resurrection and proclaiming His offer of forgiveness of sin and eternal life to any who would receive it.

It is the Holy Spirit who proves once and for all that Jesus was who He claimed to be and that the salvation He so boldly offered is real. The apostle Paul put it in words that make it so clear: “he [Jesus] has identified us as his own by placing the Holy Spirit in our hearts as the first installment that guarantees everything he has promised us” (2 Corinthians 1:22 NLT). In his letter to the believers in Rome, he put it this way: “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Romans 8:16 ESV). It is the abiding presence of God’s Spirit within us that provides us with inarguable evidence that Jesus’ offer of salvation was real. It proves that Jesus really did rise from the dead. He does sit at the right hand of the Father. He is going to return some day. The Spirit of God who lives in us is our personal guarantee regarding all that Jesus promised to us. And while we wait for the ultimate climax of all that Jesus promised: His return, we can enjoy fullness of joy and assurance of our salvation. We can experience abundant fruitfulness and express unconditional love. We can sense the reality of Christ’s abiding presence and trust in the promise of His imminent return.

Proverbs 22c

The Desire of Every Parent.

“Direct your child onto the right path, and when they are older, they will not leave it.” – Proverbs 22:6 NLT

This verse has been taught at every parenting seminar I have ever been to. It has been held up as a promise from the very Word of God that offers us a virtual guarantee of success in child-rearing if we just do our part well. But as a parent of six and as the youngest son of my own parents, I have found that this verse, while promising, is not exactly a promise. In fact, it is NOT a promise at all. Like all the other proverbs written or collected by Solomon, it is a universal truth. It is how God intended the world to work. But because of the fall and the presence of sin, things do not always turn out the way God intended or as we might want them to – regardless of how well we do at raising our children. But this does not change the reality that the best way is always God’s way. As Christ-followers, we are to raise our children according to God’s will and direct them on to the one path that leads to true life. In most translations, the first part of this verse uses the words, “train up a child.” The Hebrew idea behind this is that of dedication. It is used in the context of dedicating a house to God. So, in essence, we are to dedicate our children to God and give them over to Him for His use – teaching them to walk His path and live according to His will. This includes not only teaching them well, but modeling Christ-like behavior and obedience in front of them. It isn’t enough to simply teach them Bible stories and moralistic platitudes about honesty, sharing, truthfulness, and humility. As the old saying goes, when it comes to teaching more is caught than taught. Our kids will pick up the “godly life” by watching us live it more than they will by hearing us talk about it. When this verse says, “Direct your children onto the right path,” it is encouraging us as parents to live our lives in such a way that our children instinctively know which way to go from having watched us and followed us.
According to the Book of Proverbs, there are only two paths to life. There are only two ways for our children to go: The wise way or the foolish way. The way of righteousness or the way of wickedness. The way of the godly or the way of the godless. Because Proverbs uses the metaphor of the path so often, it fits in well here. It helps us understand that this verse is about a way of life, not just lessons for life. It is about a lifestyle choice. And it is a lifelong job. As parents, we are always training our children – even long after they are out of our house. We are still modeling godly behavior and directing them onto the right path long after they’re grown and gone. The verse says, “and when they are older, they will not leave it.” This conveys the idea that our job is never over and that the impact of our efforts are lifelong, not temporal. We may see our children wander off the path for a time, but we may also live to see them discover their way back our of the high weeds and into the light of God’s will. Our job is to keep training, modeling, and directing. We have to leave the results up to God. At the end of the day, if we have truly dedicated them to God, we must realize that it is He who will determine the outcome of their lives. Only He can reach their hearts and transform their character from the inside out. And while this Proverbs does not guarantee results, it does give us the assurance that if we are faithful to do our job, we can trust God to do His part. We can leave our children in His capable, loving, merciful hands.

Father, give me the stamina and determination to direct my children on to the right path and to do it faithfully, all throughout the years of their lives. Don’t let me take shortcuts or fail to model the godly lifestyle in front of them. Forgive me for taking complete responsibility for the way my children turn out and forgetting that only You can save my kids, and redeem, restore, and protect them. Amen.

Ken Miller

Grow Pastor & Minister to Men
kenm@christchapelbc.org