God’s Presence and the Exile

 

Text: Ezekiel 11

Ezekiel 11 19

This week so far, we’ve talked about creation, the garden, and the tabernacle, exploring how they fit into the theme and story of God’s presence. Today I want to talk about exile, or that feeling you get when you know you aren’t home, and things aren’t right. It’s an ongoing theme for the Israelites. We see it when Adam and Eve are kicked out of the garden, we see it when the Israelites are held captive in Egypt, and now we’re going to see it again as Israel and Judah are given into the hands of the Assyrians and Babylonians.

 

Let’s do a quick fly-by to bring us to this point from where we left off in history. Moses and the Israelites wander around in the desert for a while and eventually reach their promised land in Canaan. The Israelites capture the land under the leadership of Joshua. After Joshua, Israel is led by a series of Judges, people who get Israel out of a bind after they have been stupid over and over (and over) again. After that, Israel is brought together under the kingships of Saul, David, and Solomon. David, like Moses, receives plans for a temple from God, and his son, Solomon completes them, the difference being that Solomon’s temple was much more grand and permanent than Moses’s tent. Moving on, after Solomon’s death, the people divide into northern (Israel) and southern (Judah) kingdoms.

 

God’s people at this point have an ongoing problem. They aren’t following their covenant with God. They prostitute themselves to other gods. Even under dire warnings (Dt 29 and Jer 25, among many others), they continue to make their own way. They aren’t even getting along with each other, hence the divided kingdom. They simply do not get the point, and as a result, God, even while being slow to anger (Exo 34:6), has reached a point where he has to serve justice. And by that, I mean allow Assyrians and Babylonians to come clean house on them.

 

And clean house they do. Israel is pummeled and scattered by the Assyrians. Judah is taken by the Babylonians. King Nebuchadnezzar sieges Jerusalem in about 598 BC and 587 BC, taking the people of Judah into captivity. The second time, the temple of Solomon is destroyed, too. You can find a particularly devastating account of this siege in Jeremiah 52. It’s great bedtime reading for all the kids.

 

What. In. The. World. At this point, it would sure seem like God’s people are done for. They had a pretty good run, but this must be the end.

 

But not all is lost. In Ezekiel 11:16-20, God shows Ezekiel a glimmer of hope, and has him relay the message to the others who are in exile. Even though they are scattered and captive, God is still their sanctuary (or their temple, if you will). He is going to give them back their land, and turn their hearts of stone soft. They’re going to be his people, and he’s going to be their God. Yet, in verses 22 and 23, God shows Ezekiel that his presence is leaving the temple, in the form of a strange cherubim-driven chariot. So God’s not even in his temple anymore, but he’s still with a few of his faithful people who are in exile, sustaining them.

 

Through Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel, among others, we see God making some pretty big promises about coming out of exile, a new temple, a messianic king, and a renewed rule (kingdom) of God, for starters. But for the time being, exile is the reality for God’s people.

 

The Persians eventually conquer the Babylonians in 539 BC, and Cyrus the Great allows the Israelites in exile to go home if they want. Only a small portion go back. Maybe now things will get better, back to the good old days. We can get a new king, build the temple again, and God will be with us. We’ll have rest from our enemies.

 

And they do rebuild the temple (see Ezra and Nehemiah about all of this), but it isn’t anything near what it used to be (Hag 2:3), and there is no indication that God’s presence ever fills it like the tabernacle and Solomon’s temple. Something is still not right. God’s people are back to their land, but it doesn’t really feel like home. They are struggling to find their identity again. They’re still not following God’s covenant. Where’s God? What is going on? It’s like the exile never really ended. And perhaps it still hasn’t ended. It has, at best, been replaced by new exiles into new Babylons over the centuries, and that’ll likely be what we continue to see until everything is restored.

 

If this whole thing makes you feel a little bummed, that’s just a taste of the exile feeling. The exile was massively painful for God’s people, and so much of scripture is dedicated to wrestling with the questions and emotions brought up by it. According to many, the narrative of scripture is shaped around it. And exile isn’t just the experience of Israel, it is a reality we share in, as well. While we give Caesar his due, really we are citizens of God’s dimension, heaven (Phil 3:20). So we remain faithful to our God, and hold on to a hope that there is something better just around the corner.

 

“But for you who fear My name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings; and you will go forth and skip about like calves from the stall.” -Malachi 4:2

 

I hope that verse made you smile as it made me smile. There’s hope and a new day. There is indeed a new temple for the Israelites, with the presence of God, even. But it’s not the kind they’re expecting. More on this tomorrow.

 

-Jay Laurent

God’s Presence and the Tabernacle

Exodus 40 16 17

Text: Exodus 40

 

As we leave the Garden, the state of God’s relationship with his creation is strained. Adam and Eve have been kicked out of the garden because of their defiance, and no longer have access to God’s presence like they had before. They are effectively exiled.

 

Let’s jump ahead to Moses. Now, there is much that happened between the garden and the introduction of Moses, and it is important stuff to know, but I want to race ahead to our topic of God’s presence.

 

As you probably know, Moses was a man chosen by God to lead God’s people (the Israelites) out of captivity in Egypt. It’s quite the epic story, and it is crucial to the Israelites. It reminds them how God chose them as his people and was faithful to them, bringing them out of captivity.

 

So now the Israelites, under the leadership of Moses and the miraculous deliverance of God himself, have escaped the clutches of Pharaoh. While they are in the middle of nowhere, at the foot of Mt. Sinai, God begins to form a deeper relationship with them. He begins by giving them some basic guidelines of being his people, part of which is what we know as the Ten Commandments.

 

In Exodus 25, God begins giving Moses some very specific (exhaustive!) guidelines for building a tent structure called the tabernacle. It is important to ask why, just like how we asked why God would create us in the first place. And I think the answer to why he created and the answer to why he wanted a tabernacle built are the same answer: In 25:8, God says, “Let them construct a sanctuary for Me, that I may dwell among them.”

 

Simple enough. But God has been interacting with his people all along. We can see how he worked in Noah, Abraham, and Joseph, just as a few examples. And now he has entered into a very special relationship with Moses, and by extension, to the rest of the Israelites. So if God is working among them and has a relationship with them, why do they need a tent thing?

 

I don’t know why God chose a tent specifically, but there is something special about it. God wanted to use it to dwell among his people, in a way that was closer to how he dwelt in the Garden. It was a much more intense dwelling and presence than he had been able to have among his people for a long time, since the Garden. Mankind lost special access to God’s presence after the Garden was off limits, but with the tabernacle, God was providing them with a new way to access his presence again. God is in the business of restoring.

 

God’s intentions and vision for this tabernacle are made more clear by the frequent callbacks to creation. In chapters 25-31, there are seven sections that begin, “the LORD spoke to Moses…” followed by detailed tabernacle plans. This is a reference back to the seven days of creation, when God commanded the cosmos into order. The sixth speech mentions craftsmen and priesthood, where day six of creation features mankind created in his image. The seventh speech is a reminder to the Israelites about the importance of the Sabbath, while day seven of creation is when God rests.

 

The tabernacle and creation accounts are further connected in structure with key phrases: Gen 1:31 vs Ex 39:43 (seeing what was done), Gen 2:1 vs Ex 39:32 (completing), Gen 2:2 vs Ex 40:33 (finishing work), Gen 2:3 vs Ex 39:43 (blessing), and Gen 2:3 vs Ex 40:9 (sanctifying).

 

Additionally, there are several symbols in the tabernacle that are connections back to Eden. The lampstand in 31:8 is a symbol of the tree of life, and the ark may symbolize the tree of knowledge (it contains the law, and you die if you touch it). There are images of cherubim in the tabernacle, reminding us that cherubim guarded the entrance to the garden. Gold and precious stones may also be symbols that tie the tabernacle back to Eden.

 

Similar connections to creation and the garden exist when looking at Solomon’s Temple, but I’ll leave that unexplored to return to our regularly scheduled program.

 

What is the purpose of all these references to creation and the garden? I believe God wanted his people to recognize the symbolism as his attempt to bring the garden back to them, in a way. God wanted to commit to his people and assure them that they could again have access to his presence. God wanted them to know that dwelling with them was his plan from the very beginning, and he will restore it. And we know that God’s intent is to dwell with us too, in ways that far surpass the tabernacle among the Israelites, and in ways that far surpass even the garden.

 

What? Yes! We’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg. Now to Exodus 40 before I get too excited. When everything for the tabernacle was done according to God’s instructions to Moses, God’s presence rested in it:

 

Ex 40:34-38 (NASB): “Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud had settled on it, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. Throughout all their journeys whenever the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle, the sons of Israel would set out; but if the cloud was not taken up, then they did not set out until the day when it was taken up. For throughout all their journeys, the cloud of the LORD was on the tabernacle by day, and there was fire in it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel.”

 

If you are Moses, then this is a fairly anti-climactic way of ending Exodus. He didn’t even get to go in! There is still apparently a problem with sin. If you go into the holy of holies and are not clean enough, you die. Only the high priest can go in, once a year, offering blood to cover for the sins of him and the people (Hebrews 9:7). Looking back at the garden, and how sin and the presence of God are incompatible, maybe kicking Adam and Eve out of the Garden could have been more of an act of mercy than a harsh punishment.

 

But here is God, dwelling among his people again, restoring and guiding them. My prayer for you today and every day is that you will seek to be where God is, by following that cloud. That you will linger when the cloud lingers and that you will set out when the cloud is taken up. That God will show you where and how he is moving and invite you in on the action.

 

Jay Laurent

God’s Presence and the Garden

Genesis 2 8

Text: Gen 2:4 – 3:24

 

Yesterday we began talking about the presence of God, starting with the creation account in Genesis 1:1-2:3. We saw that God not only created the earth as a place for us to live, but also as a place for him to be present with us. The heavens and earth are God’s temple.

 

As we move on in Genesis, starting with 2:4 and going to the end of chapter 2, we find another creation account, and its focus is different than the first, paying special attention to humans and what seems to be agriculture. We are introduced to a garden, and people to cultivate and rule over it: Adam (which literally means man or mankind) and Eve (which literally means living or life). The garden also includes two special trees, the tree of life, and tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The tree of knowledge could have easily been called the tree of certain death, because God promises they will die if they eat from it. But they can eat from anything else.

 

This garden is a special place. It seems to be a focal point, almost like a holy of holies for God’s cosmic temple. It is sacred space that he shares with his creation. God walks in the garden and is present there with Adam and Eve. Can you imagine just sharing space with God, doing some gardening, and God just walks by, like it was a normal thing? “Oh, hey God.”

 

That kind of closeness and intimacy with God in his presence was how it was for Adam and Eve, until something happened. There’s a talking serpent. This mischievous serpent character convinces Eve that she won’t in fact die if she eats from the tree of knowledge, she’ll just have knowledge like God. This is tricky because it has just enough truth in it. Maybe you would call it a white lie, but still a deception. Eve eats from the tree of knowledge, and Adam follows suit.

 

As Adam and Eve ate from the tree of knowledge, they disobeyed God’s direct command and took matters into their own hands, going down a path to prematurely obtain the knowledge of good and evil. They likely had a childlike innocence about them before, and maybe God would have in time revealed this knowledge of good and evil to them in his way, in his time. Well, now things were going to be different for them. They suddenly realized they had no clothes and hid from God. They were ashamed. God finds out what they did (surely he already knew what they did) and kicks them out of his garden.

 

The consequences were very serious. God has cherubim (winged creatures sort of like a sphinx, not at all like a baby with wings) and a flaming sword guard the entrance so they can’t enter and eat from the tree of life. They are exiled from the garden, they are effectively sentenced to death by no longer having access to the tree of life and God’s presence. They will have to work much harder to grow food to survive, and some other fun consequences.

 

Reading an account like this makes you think a lot. What sorts of things are symbolized by the tree of life, and tree of knowledge? What is a serpent doing there? Are we really talking about fruit? I have no definitive answers to these questions. The beauty of this passage is that it forces you to think more every time you read it, and I believe that is why it is there.

 

The garden account is ripe with symbolism to interpret. While it is an account about real people, it is written in a way that makes it much bigger than that. Adam and Eve can be seen as archetypes for us, meaning the things that are said of them are also true of us. Adam is formed from dust (Gen 3:19), so are we (Ps 103:14). Eve is made from one of Adam’s sides, while we recognize that men and women are each other’s halves in a way. They face temptation and shame, so do we. They do things in defiance against God, and so do we (Rom 3:23), and as a result of that defiance, they exiled themselves from God’s garden, as we frequently exile ourselves from God’s presence when we sin, in a way. Their story is much like ours.

 

This isn’t the most encouraging chapter in the story of God’s presence. It’s one of the lower places we could go in scripture. The reality is that sin and the presence of God are not compatible things. Sin, separation from God, and death are all connected, if not three heads of the same monster. Of course, God knows this, and still wants to be present with us, so there has to be some kind of remedy for sin. Ultimately, we know that remedy to be Christ, but there was a progression to get there.

 

Tomorrow we’ll look at Exodus 40 – how God used a man named Moses to renew his presence among his people.

 

-Jay Laurent

 

God’s Presence at Creation

Hello Readers!  If you have been reading along with us everyday in 2019 – you have now read all of the gospel of Matthew.  Well done!   We will cover the other three gospels later in the year (John in April, Mark in August and Luke in December). This week we are going to take a little theme break and investigate the topic of the Presence of God.  Every day there will be a Bible passage to read, but they won’t be consecutive New Testament chapters.  Then, next week (starting Sunday, February 10) we will begin a chapter by chapter daily walk through the book of Acts.  Remember, stick with us all year and we will cover the whole New Testament – as well as lots of other golden nuggets as well.  And so we begin – – – The Presence of God at Creation!

Text: Gen 1:1 – 2:3

Isaiah 66 1 a

This week, I want to lead you in some thoughts, taking a tour through scripture to highlight some big moments in the story of God’s presence among us. Today we are going to start this journey in Genesis 1, with creation.

 

But why creation? I think that is an important question, if not the biggest question Genesis 1 aims to answer. Probably hundreds of times I came there preoccupied with questions about who, what, when, where, and how, but forgot to ask why. And the answer to the “why” question is intimately tied to God’s presence.

 

When we think about “why” questions, we’re starting to think about purpose. Teleological questions. We’re going places scientific inquiry doesn’t (and can’t) go. We’re starting to ask the questions God wants us to think about most.

 

The opening verses of Genesis paint a picture of a wasteland. God is hovering over the deep, or the waters (a recognized symbol of chaos). The earth is said to be without form and void. It has no purpose. God begins his work to shape it all into order.

 

But why? If you are God, do you need the heavens or an earth? Do you need plants, animals, and people? I’d guess that no, God doesn’t require any of those things. He’s God, right? It seems that if God doesn’t need anything, he was motivated by something to create.

 

The earth was set up as a space for us to live, and rule with God, or be stewards, over the rest of creation (this is at the core of what it means to be made in God’s image). The earth is a gift to us. The first six days of creation are the account of God separating, naming, and giving function and purpose to all the moving parts of his cosmos, really for our benefit.

 

God calls what he did “good” after each day, and then after he is finished, he calls the whole thing “very good.” In other words, all the parts come together and work like a well-oiled machine. Thank God the earth functions beautifully for us, but there is something more going on here, particularly when we talk about day seven.

 

Day seven is something we usually mention as an aside to creation. We say things like, “now God kicked back to relax, and he did it to admire his creation and be an example for us so that we remember to take a day off.” And we might be correct in saying something like that. But let’s be real, God doesn’t need rest. There is something more going on here.

 

First, “rest” in this context probably doesn’t mean God is tired and needs to recharge. It means he now has stability and order in his creation. You can see this idea of stability and security come up many times in scripture when it talks about God giving rest (see Exodus 33:14, 1Ch 22:9, 2Sa 7:11).

 

Second, it is understood among the Israelites and other ancient Near Eastern cultures that when deities rest, they rest in temples. And a temple isn’t finished until a deity rests in it. This is a strange idea to us, but it was understood in those cultures (we can see a similar thing happening in the ancient Babylonian creation epic, Enuma Elish, for example). They would know right away from the text of Genesis 1:1-2:3 that it has a temple theme, and that God rests in it on day seven.

 

Third, the number seven carries with it a symbolic meaning of completion. We think of numbers strictly as representing quantities. Ancient Israelites aren’t as strict with their use of numbers, and use them in ways that qualitatively symbolize things. This is why you see numbers like 7, 12, and 40 all over the place in the Bible.

 

But where was the temple in the story, though? Did you miss it? So did I. Ever seen Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade? It’s the best Indiana Jones movie, by the way. There is a part in that movie where they are in an old church that was converted to a library, and they’re trying to match Roman numerals from a stained glass window with locations in the building. They are stuck on finding the location of 10, until Indiana walks up a staircase to a balcony overlooking where they were standing. Lo and behold, there is a giant X across the whole floor. They didn’t see it, because they were standing on it the whole time.

 

If you are looking for the temple in Genesis 1, it’s been under your nose the whole time. In Isaiah 66:1, God declares, “Heaven is My throne and the earth is My footstool.” The whole cosmos is God’s temple. God spends the first six days of creation naming and giving purpose to the different parts of the heavens and the earth, to provide a place where we can thrive, but the dual purpose is that these parts are being inaugurated and paraded in as pieces of his temple.

 

But to just build a temple out of materials doesn’t make it a temple. A temple isn’t a temple until God rests in it, otherwise it’s just a structure. Day seven is when God rests in and inhabits his temple. It’s when he moves in with us. This is part of why it was important to the Jews to observe the sabbath, to celebrate his stability and presence in their lives.

 

Day seven isn’t the aftermath of creation, it is the completion, the crown, like the shiny star or angel on your Christmas tree. God could have made this beautiful place, put us in it, and moved on, never to have contact with us again, and it would still be amazing! But no, God didn’t just wind up the clock and step away, as some people mistakenly believe he did. He decided to be involved with his creation, especially us, in real and intimate ways. He decided that he would be present in his temple, living among us.

 

The why of creation, the purpose, is that God wanted to make his home with us.

 

Next, we’ll travel to the garden.

 

Just a quick note to give credit where it is due. The idea of creation being a temple isn’t mine. First of all, it is God’s idea. But if you are interested in reading more about it from scholars who can articulate and support it much better than I can, check out The Lost World Of Genesis One by John Walton, or The Temple and the Church’s Mission by G.K. Beale.

— Jay Laurent

A Hope, a Command and a Reassurance

Matthew 28

Matthew 28 20b

In the matter of a few sentences, we have a hope, a command and a reassurance. This hope is the greatest hope that anyone could have: the hope of a resurrection. The simple fact that Jesus walked out of His grave is proof enough that we too will walk out of our graves. God has given us a taste of His power, showed us that death isn’t something to fear. All throughout Matthew, we have seen the way that Jesus has lived and have heard His words. We know the way in which we are to live our lives. Jesus was the perfect example for us. If we follow in his footsteps just imagine the reward the we will receive knowing that Jesus was rewarded with eternal life.

This hope that Jesus left us with is accompanied with a command, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples all the commands I have given you.” This command is a heavy one, although it seems straightforward. First Jesus commands us to go. We need to move to carry out this command. The second part is to make disciples. This is a daunting task these days. It seems like no one wants to hear about religion of any kind, let alone discipleship. Maybe people don’t want to listen to you, this just means that you must go. Jesus said in Matthew 10:14, if someone won’t receive you, then shake the dust off your feet and move on. This applies to us in our daily lives even if we aren’t going to move to Peru to minister. If our friendships aren’t moving towards discipleships, then perhaps it’s time to go.

Jesus, knowing how hard this command would be to follow, provided a reassurance to go along with it. He said, “Be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Jesus held firm until the very end of His life. He weathered the taunts and the persecution, the beatings and the crucifixion. If anyone understands hardship, He does. And He is with you always. When you are struggling in the face of trial, look to Jesus. Understand how he endured His trials and let His way work in your life. Allow Jesus to give you strength as you strive to follow his command, holding fast to the hope that we all share in the resurrection to come.

-Nathaniel Johnson

 

Turning Shame into Honor

Matthew 27

Matthew 27 29b-31

After Jesus had been sentenced, flogged and mocked, He was hung up on a cross with a sign hanging over His head, reading, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.” This sign was another attempt to show contempt for Jesus. The sign mocks His name and labels him a heretical blasphemer. Yet in this attempt at mockery, there was truth. Jesus will return as King of the Jews and all those who followed Him. God took the shame that the Jews who crucified Jesus tried to cast upon Him and turned it into Honor for Jesus.

God constantly takes our shame and turns it into honor. In our current society, it is common to be called names for living a righteous and biblical lifestyle. Many will call you a prude, a goody two shoes, a tryhard. Their goal is to tear you down in the eyes of the world, to paint you as one who sits on an imaginary throne of righteous living and looks down on the world to condescend. This mockery is your honor. It is a testament to the effort that you put in to live as you have been called. Continue to wear your breastplate of righteousness and endure the mockery, and have your shamed turned into your honor.

-Nathaniel Johnson