12 Even now— this is the Lord’s declaration— turn to Me with all your heart, with fasting, weeping, and mourning. 13 Tear your hearts, not just your clothes, and return to the Lord your God. For He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, rich in faithful love, and He relents from sending disaster. Joel 2:12-13 (HCSB)
Today we’re going to read the book of Joel (hey, that’s my name!). It is one of the shortest books in the Old Testament, so I’ll keep my thoughts on it brief. It was written as a wake up call to God’s people. As you’ve been reading through the Prophets, it should have been quite apparent that God wasn’t the happiest about the actions of His people. That’s why we have this particular section of scripture; if Israel hadn’t messed up so bad, God wouldn’t have had to tell them so. Joel doesn’t say much different than the other Prophets; he is just rehashing the same message because apparently, Israel still hasn’t learned its lesson. Here’s the condensed version of the message: you’ve sinned and made God angry, but He loves you and wants you to live, so turn away from your wickedness.
This message, which was proclaimed to the Jews first, is just as relevant today for us as it was then for them. Only today we have the added part: God loved you so much He sent His only begotten son so you can live eternally (John 3:16). We still live in nations full of wickedness, we still raise idols to a status reserved only for Yahweh, we still do wrong when we know what’s right, and we still let the ungodly have undue influence over us. The words spoken through the Prophets to the people of Israel still hold value for us, and I hope we will do a better job heeding them than the original recipients.
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading through Joel and the last chapters of Ezekiel with me this week.
– Joel Fletcher
Today’s Bible reading passage can be read or listened to at BibleGateway here – Joel 1-3
Tomorrow we will begin the book of Daniel (chapters 1-3) as we continue seeking God on our
“‘But the Levitical priests, who are descendants of Zadok and who guarded my sanctuary when the Israelites went astray from me, are to come near to minister before me; they are to stand before me to offer sacrifices of fat and blood, declares the Sovereign Lord. They alone are to enter my sanctuary; they alone are to come near my table to minister before me and serve me as guards. Ezekiel 44:15-16 (NIV)
Yesterday we discussed God’s holiness and how it must be separated from the common. Today we will continue along those lines but in terms of ministering in the presence of such holiness. The temple was the place where God’s presence was located on earth and was considered the holiest place on the planet; it was a sacred space. Not just anyone could visit the temple; Israel was ripped by God for allowing uncircumcised (of heart and body) non-Jews to go into the temple (Ez. 44:7). After laying out the dimensions for a new holy temple in the last few chapters, God turns Ezekiel’s attention to who gets to minister there and in what capacity.
Israel had not taken seriously the holiness of God, even in the temple, where the Holy of Holies was found. The Levitical priests, despite being chosen to act as ministers in the temple, couldn’t fulfill their duties without corruption. They allowed the unworthy to come into the temple and served as priests to idols. These priests may not have been, but Yahweh certainly was serious about keeping His temple holy and having the right people ministering there. So, in this new temple, those who hadn’t appreciated the importance of the job would miss out. Those who remained firm, those who did not go with the crowd, those who did appreciate the holiness of the temple, the Zadokites (descendants of Zadok), would be lifted up as an example and given the jobs the less than faithful had forfeited.
Today there isn’t a grand temple complex where we must minister before God. We don’t have to make animal sacrifices, wear special clothes, or worry about remaining ceremonially clean. But that doesn’t mean God isn’t just as serious today about those who represent Him as ministers. The sacrifices of today are spiritual in nature and offered by those who have chosen to follow Christ as their High Priest. We are to act as royal priests who, following the example of our High Priest, surrender ourselves completely to the will of God and do the ministry He calls us to. Just like the Zadokites, who were lauded for their faithfulness despite Israel’s disobedience, we need to make sure we stay true to who we are as disciples of Christ and God’s representatives on earth, regardless of how others act–Christian or not. Our God still cares about holiness and has put His spirit within us, let us guard the new temple with the same (or greater) fervor and faithfulness as (than) the Zadokites did.
Today’s Bible passage can be read or listened to at Biblegateway here –Ezekiel 44-45
Tomorrow we will finish the book of Ezekiel (chapters 46-48) as we continue on our
Why is it that older churches and cathedrals seem to have an aura about them that is missing from newer Christian constructions? There is a special reverence that is shown to these historical places of worship, but why? They appear to be more “holy” than modern church structures–are they really or is it just perception?
In our reading today, we get more details about the temple complex being shown to Ezekiel. As I mentioned yesterday, one intention for the prophet in giving specifications to all of Israel was so they could imagine what it would be like. Another reason, which flows from first is to draw attention to God’s holiness and, in turn, Israel’s sinfulness. But why would imagining the temple lead to recognizing sin? This question and the ones in the above paragraph are tied together.
The idea of holiness in the Bible is connected with being different, set apart, or sacred. The God of the Bible is called holy; He is without sin, He is all powerful, He is worthy of worship and adoration. Yahweh is distinct from His creation. Though humans are made in His image, they have sins which separate them from God, showing Him to be holy and people common. When humans encounter God’s holiness, it leaves them in awe of His majesty and with awareness of their own sinfulness (see Isaiah 6). When you see a dirty object–even one you think is clean–held up to something that is flawless, every little blemish is revealed. That is what happens when humans meet God.
When we see older churches or cathedrals, we are looking at something different, uncommon, a building designed to be set apart from other constructions. Older places of worship are usually taller, more distinctive, and, dare I say, were built by people more reverent than us. They have brilliant stained glass, magnificent architecture, and invoke a deep sense of beauty. Modern churches, by contrast, aren’t much taller than most middle-class housing and, in most cities, are located every few blocks. They look dull in comparison, with nothing extraordinary to offer. Older churches appear more holy because they stand out more, while modern ones seem all too common.
Older churches and cathedrals were built as the place where humans go to encounter God, much like Jews viewed the temple. Many modern Christians understand they don’t have go to a building to worship God, but for most of Christian history the church building has been the place where followers of Christ have gathered to worship their creator, which is why those older churches were so grand. They wanted the building to reflect the holiness of the God they worshiped. God’s holiness causes people to recognize their own sinfulness. It’s no wonder that the dulling down of Christian architecture has mirrored a more laissez-faire attitude towards sin.
What should we do then? Should we go back to designing and building grand places of worship?
No. When Jesus left the curtain torn, the separation between the holy God and sinful humanity was broken. This means striving after good works and the sacrificing of rams and bulls is not the way to achieve holiness. Instead, we put our faith (believe) in the one responsible for ripping the veil in half and offer ourselves as living sacrifices to God. Because of the righteousness of the Messiah, we can be holy and the spirit of God can dwell in us, as we live as the temple of God (1 Cor. 3:16).
God’s holiness still causes us to recognize our own sin, but we don’t have to go to a grand building to see it. We encounter it through scripture, reading about God Himself or His son who reveals so much about Him. We see it in nature, looking through binoculars, telescopes, or with the naked eye. We see it when the Church (the people, not the building) acts as it was intended to. Thankfully God’s holiness doesn’t just reveal our sinfulness, but His love for us and willingness to forgive those who ask for it. What a holy, loving, and awesome God we serve!
– Joel Fletcher
Today’s Bible passage can be read or listened to at BibleGateway here – Ezekiel 42-43
Tomorrow we will read Ezekiel 44-45 as we continue on our
Here we go! I thought we were past the “boring” parts of the Bible. Yesterday we read about God obliterating a mighty leader and his allies and today we get dimensions for a temple? Two whole chapters on dimensions and part of another(we’ll get to that tomorrow)? Give me a break…
Maybe it’s just me, but it seems we are living in one of the least imaginative periods in world history. If you asked me to write a simple short, short story, like under 1000 words, I don’t know if I could think up something that would hold your interest for 10 minutes. I don’t know if it would be because of my lack of imagination or yours (maybe both). This is why we find passages like today’s so boring. And I think I know why our imaginations are so lacking. It is because of the constant bombardment of visual stimulation. We don’t need to exercise our imaginations, so we don’t. We have blockbuster films so we don’t need novels. Kids have IPhones so they don’t need to play made up games. Cars have DVD (or Blu-ray) players so they don’t have to exercise their vocabulary (which takes imagination) to play the Alphabet game. I don’t want to sound like some old fart harping on modern technology, but anyone who thinks smartphone usage among the adolescent (and younger and older) doesn’t carry consequences is being naive at best. Maybe I’m delusional, but at least that means I have imagination, right?
Now on to these “boring” dimensions…
In our key verse for today (40:4) Ezekiel receives instructions to look, listen, and pay attention to what is being said and then to tell it to the people of Israel. This signals for us that even the most minute measurements of this passage are seen as important to the people of Israel. It makes sense that these small details would matter; anyone who has done carpentry knows that even an eighth of an inch can make a big difference when trying to make something square (flush). And that’s the case even if you make something as small as a birdhouse. How much more so when you’re creating a compound as big as the temple being described. If this temple is actually going to be built, it needs detailed specifications. No one builds anything on a grand scale without a blueprint about how to build it. So it makes sense that the builders of this temple would need to know this “boring” stuff. But why does all of Israel need to know what this temple will look like? The answer to this question reveals in part why Ezekiel was told to tell all of Israel the vision and part of what we should glean from the passage. God wanted Israel to be able to imagine what the temple would look like. They could make a mental picture in their minds and imagine being there with Yahweh, the Holy One of Israel . This would have filled the righteous with joy, hope, and a longing for the future and the idolatrous with guilt, fear, and hopefully a desire to repent. It would have revealed God’s holiness to them and made them think about their guilt (we’ll talk about this more tomorrow). There’s no doubt in my mind the Jews in exile had better imaginations than us.
Now to us unimaginative folks…
Just as God wanted to have the people of Israel use their minds to picture the temple and imagine what it would be like to be there, our creator wants us to use our imaginations. We are to love Yahweh with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind. I think this last one gets under appreciated or is used simply to refer to knowing about God, but part of loving God with our mind is using our inherent ability to imagine. Today’s passage is a great opportunity to do so. As you’re reading (or, listening) to Ezekiel 40 and 41 and the dimensions listed (read a version with measurements you’re familiar with) picture the temple in your mind and what it would be like to be there with God. There are other parts of the Bible with much less detail, but where we can still picture the scene in our mind. This should help us in our study of scripture and fulfilling the command to love God with all our mind. We can imagine what it was like at creation, what it was like to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, or what it will be like in the Kingdom. These are not only great exercises for our lacking imaginations, but I believe they are ways to worship. We are made in the image of the one who created the entire universe out of nothing. Imagine that-
Whenever we learn a pastor is going to be reading from one of the Prophets it usually means we’re going to hear something about Jesus or how a prophecy may be fulfilled soon (read: in our lifetime). Now, neither of these is a bad reason to look at the words God spoke through these chosen messengers, but I think there are other reasons we should read them and a mindset we should have when we do that more aligns with why they were written. Our reading for today will be a case in point.
In Ezekiel 38-39, we hear about Gog, a military leader, and Magog, the home of said leader. This guy Gog is someone who wants to go to blows with the people of God. And God will let it (or make it) happen, not because He doesn’t care about His people, but the opposite. God is going to send Gog to destroy Israel, but the tough guy and all who join him will meet their doom instead. Yahweh is going to reveal Himself to the world so that they know He really is God and He really does defend His people and care for them. Though they may be weak and outnumbered, Israel has the God of Angel Armies on their side and He will not be denied victory. The nations will see what happens to Gog and know it was God who put an end to him and his allies.
What Bible teachers and preachers usually do when expositing from these two chapters in Ezekiel, is to try to identify what current world nations are represented by the names mentioned in the text (e.g. Gog) and when these events will take place. This is an acceptable goal when trying to dig into the meaning of this passage and trying to see how it relates to other prophecies, especially if we think it might be fulfilled in our own lifetime. But I think the first thing we need to do (generally) when reading the Bible is try to understand what the purpose of the message was in the first place and then to see what it means for us today. We should have our minds be in a state where we’re hearing as the original intended audience heard it, then bring it to our own context and see how it fits there. Most of the Bible was written for Jewish people in an ancient Jewish context. We have to appreciate that and respond accordingly. One caveat is that just because a speaker doesn’t mention how a passage was heard in its original context doesn’t mean they didn’t think about it, it could be they didn’t have time to bring it up in their lesson/message. That being said, we should seek to regularly look at the original audience/context whenever we do our own study of the Bible.
Ezekiel 38-39 was written down by a Jew in exile for the Jews in exile. People who had a covenant with Yahweh but had repeatedly broken it. They had a relationship with the One True God but continued to cheat on Him with other nations and their false gods. They were being punished for their idolatry through exile. Babylon had conquered the Promised Land and they no longer could claim it as their home. God had revealed previously that He would restore Jewish people back to their home. He does again in this passage and says they will be living securely, in peace when Gog makes his move and is roundly defeated by Israel’s defender and the world is shown that Yahweh is the Holy One is Israel. This undoubtedly would have caused joy to the Jews who heard it, trust from those who believed it, and hope to the ones who thought about the future.
Bringing it to our own context, we may not be exiled from our native land, but we are awaiting a country of our own (Hebrews 11:14). We may not have worshiped false gods like Baal and Asherah, but perhaps we have elevated things or people to a place only reserved for God. We may not be a part of the Old Covenant which brought God to the defense of His rebellious people, but we are a part of the New Covenant which brought Jesus to take on the sins of rebellious people. How much more joy, trust, and hope should we have in Yahweh because of the New Covenant?
It would probably be blasphemous to suggest God asks silly questions, so I won’t. But I would imply that the creator of the universe makes inquiries which His creatures wouldn’t. I don’t think most of us, upon seeing a valley full of human bones, dried out by years of the sun beating down on them, would think to ask: Can these bones live? No, I think the first question would be: “What on earth happened here?” Followed by: “What’s the quickest way out of this place?” But that is not what happens in chapter 37 of Ezekiel. No, Ezekiel doesn’t get to ask a question, instead, one is posed to him by God, “Can these bones live?” And he responds with either the biggest cop-out of an answer there is or the wisest: “Only God knows.” I would lean towards wisest. God’s not trying to learn something from Ezekiel; He is trying to reveal something to the prophet so Ezekiel can relay it to the people of Israel, which is why he doesn’t try to guess at an answer. Ezekiel doesn’t care to have his opinions heard by God; he wants to know what God has to say. We would do well to learn this trait from the prophet–you could say it would be quite profitable (sorry!).
While Ezekiel doesn’t provide a yes or no answer to the question, God does: yes, these bones will live again. These bones, representing the house of Israel, who have been cut off from their land, and whose hope is gone, will live again. God’s people who, time after time, have rebelled against Yahweh and received mercy only to rebel further, will once again experience the grace of God and return to the Promised Land. This vision, like all those received by the prophets, is first for the Jews. It concerns God’s People and it is for God’s People, but there is much for us, as Christians, to learn from the words of the prophets today.
A few things we should recognize from this particular revelation and meditate on are (1) God’s relentless love for His people, despite their blunders, foolishness, and obstinate ways (to put it mildly). (2) That God can (and does) redeem those who have been abused, discarded, and forgotten. (3) We can (and should) have hope and trust in Yahweh, despite any and every problematic, perilous, or pernicious situation we may be in. The God we serve does not cower at death, does not withhold second chances, and does not fail to love the unlovable. Neither should we.
– Joel Fletcher
Today’s Bible passage can be read or listened to at BibleGateway here – ht
Starting with the arrest of Paul in chapter 21, Luke has been steering his readers to a grand finale, where Paul will finally stand in front of the most powerful man in the world to give his testimony. The Apostle endured conspiracies against his life, corruption in government, and finally storms at sea to make it to Rome. Paul was willing to go through all this because he had a clear vision and purpose for his life and knew Rome was where God wanted him to be and the Emperor was who God wanted him to see.
But the conclusion Luke had been building towards is suddenly cut short with Paul under house arrest. We’re not told if he ever got the chance to defend his case before the Emperor, but we can be confident that he did since God said he would. Though exactly how it came about or what happened after is a mystery. There are traditions that say he was acquitted and then brought the Gospel to Spain, but Luke doesn’t confirm or deny it. He just closes his book with a cliffhanger.
So what are we to take away from this saga with the abrupt and unresolved ending and why would Luke decide to leave it the way he did?
Luke began the Book of Acts by reporting the last interactions Jesus had with his disciples before he ascended. He told them that they would be his witnesses in their local regions and then throughout the world. Luke then proceeded to show his readers how the disciples went about doing this. But he left his story open-ended, and he did all this for a reason.
The Acts of the Apostles is about how the disciples carried out the Great Commission and it is left unresolved because the story wasn’t supposed to end with Paul in Rome, it was supposed to progress with disciples continuing to fulfill the final instructions of Jesus. And it did. The reason you’re reading this now is that the witnessing has endured to this day. And it will continue so long as people like you and me keep spreading the Good News of the Kingdom of God.
So don’t worry about this cliffhanger. The final resolution will come when Jesus himself returns to see the fruit of his disciples’ labor and to establish the Kingdom they represent. Until then, we must maintain the work that was started in Christ and continued with his disciples. May the perseverance and commitment of Paul and the rest of the Apostles act as an example for you on your journey and encourage you to remain faithful in the advancement of the Great Commission.
Today it only takes a few hours to travel from the Holy Land to Rome. A non-stop plane ticket costs just a few hundred bucks. For a couple of hundred more, you can get upgraded to first class. That sounds rather nice–flying over the beautiful Mediterranean sea, being waited on hand and foot, heading to the former center of the Roman empire to take in the sights and sounds of this majestic ancient city.
For Paul, though, the journey was not so short…or luxurious. And it certainly wasn’t non-stop. The trek to Rome included a slew of problems for this man from Tarsus and his companions, such as a snakebite, a shipwreck, and a plan to slaughter prisoners. What happened during this voyage would have tested the most experienced seafarer. But throughout the storms and chaos, Paul remained calm and determined. When others had lost hope and were filled with fear, the Apostle took charge and restored order.
Paul was able to remain composed and didn’t cave to fear because of where he placed his trust. He had been informed by the Lord that he would make it to Rome to testify there and he believed this wholeheartedly. God had been faithful thus far and Paul knew this would continue. After all, he did write the words of Romans 8:28.
“We know that God is always at work for the good of everyone who loves him. They are the ones God has chosen for his purpose.” – Romans 8:28 (CEV)
God has a plan. From the Bible, we can gain a general understanding of it. We can see how He has worked in history and what He intends to do in the future. Sometimes, though, it can be difficult for us to see where we fit in the grand scheme of things or how God can work in us. God used Paul as an instrument for His glorious plan. It wasn’t because he was special that God chose to employ Paul as His messenger to the Gentiles; he was special only because he was chosen. We don’t have to be special for God to use us either (which is a good thing…because we’re not).
Paul found himself on that arduous adventure because he was doing work for God. If we are going to be active followers of Christ and productive promoters of his Good News, sometimes we’re going to find ourselves in difficult situations as well. But we, like Paul, can have courage knowing the plan God has for the future and confidence because we are doing His will.
Because of his appeal to Caesar in chapter 25, Paul was guaranteed his next trial would take place in Rome. So when Paul stood before King Agrippa and other dignitaries, he wasn’t required to defend himself or give testimony. Having said that, Paul wasn’t going to pass up an opportunity to witness about the works God had performed in his life–this was one of his life’s missions. So Paul, being able to speak freely, gave his most passionate testimony yet.
There are three things we should learn about apologetics (defending the Christian faith) from Paul’s final defense before he headed to Rome.
1. Know Your Stuff.
Although Festus called Paul crazy, he recognized him as a man of great understanding. Going back to his days as a Pharisee, Paul demonstrated his great zeal for truth and reason. He didn’t lose this enthusiasm when he became a follower of Jesus, he refocused it. Paul knew the Hebrew sacred writings better than anyone and was a master at reconciling the long-held truths of Scripture with his new-found recognition of Jesus as Messiah. Paul was also well learned in the other philosophies and religions of the day. This is most clearly seen in his visit to Mars Hill.
If we are going to be able to defend our faith, we must be knowledgable of both the ideas of Scripture and those contrary to them.
2. Live Above Reproach.
One of the most common critiques leveled against Christianity today is that its adherents are hypocrites. Nothing ruins credibility more effectively than saying one thing then doing the opposite. The Jews had quite a difficult time trying to get charges against Paul to stick. As has been mentioned before, Paul strived to live life with a clear conscience. So in order to discredit and disgrace Paul, the religious leaders had to contrive charges against him.
To be an effective witness and apologist for the Christian faith, we must also strive to live with a clear conscience.
3. Be Positive.
Another issue some have with Christians is that they can be too harsh when talking about their faith. Street preachers and picketers are tuned out and labeled as unfriendly fanatics (or worse) by passersby. Sadly, they are the only representatives of Christ some people every meet.
When Jesus was harsh it was with those who should known better (the religious elite). When Paul was trying to convince unbelievers of the wonderful nature of the Good News, he would do so in a positive way–highlighting things like the resurrection, the power of God, and the mercy He extends to sinners.
The truth is that there are certain tenets of Christianity that non-believers don’t like. When witnessing we should focus on the recognized positives of the faith that appeal to most people–mercy, justice, eternal life, etc. Once people start understanding things like the nature of God and morality, then we can start discussing the perceived negative doctrines of Christianity.
Paul was knowledgeable, had a clear conscience, and was positive when defending his faith and promoting the Good News. The power of the Gospel message is amazing and life-changing. If we want to further its reach and be better able to defend it, we must follow these three principles from Paul.
In chapter 16, we found out that Paul was a Roman citizen. Being a citizen of this vast empire was a great privilege. There were only two ways to gain Roman citizenship; you could either purchase it (something only the rich could afford to do), or be lucky enough to inherit it from your parents when you were born. Paul was born a Roman citizen.
The reason why you would want to be a Roman citizen in the first century is that they were given rights others were not guaranteed. The rights to marry another Roman citizen, to sue and to be sued, to have a legal trial, and to not be crucified were just some of the benefits offered to those privileged enough be Roman citizens.
As we saw in chapter 21, Paul had already used his citizenship to get out of being flogged (Romans, legally, could not be tortured or whipped). In chapter 25 Paul exercised another of his rights–the right to appeal to Caesar. Paul knew that if he was brought back to Jerusalem, the men that had pledged to kill him would probably succeed. He also knew that he had to get to Rome to testify there. Thus Paul used his privilege to get to where he needed to go, so he could do what he was required to do (though, as we shall see in the coming chapters, this journey would not be an easy one).
If you were born in the West (especially the United States), you, like Paul, are privileged. You have rights like freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of the press. But there are many parts of the world today where these rights that are taken for granted are only the ideals of dreamers. There are Christians throughout the world who have to look over their shoulder as they travel to church (if a public place of worship is even allowed) and others who are worshiping with the knowledge that every gathering may easily be their last.
There is another privilege you share with Paul: you are a citizen of Heaven. This citizenship cannot be purchased or inherited. It is not exclusive. The Kingdom of Heaven (or, Kingdom of God) is open to anyone. The poor and the rich, the weak and the strong, the lost and the found are all welcome. The cost of this privilege was paid for by God with the blood of His Son. It is offered to any who will receive it.
Paul was first and foremost a citizen of Heaven. He lived his life devoted to advancing the Kingdom and the One who will establish it in its fullness. The rights his Roman citizenship granted him were nothing compared to those his Lord did. That being said, Paul exercised his privilege as a Roman in order to promote God’s Kingdom as a Christian. He wanted to make sure as many people as possible would become citizens of the Kingdom. You also can use your rights as a citizen of your country to further the cause of the Kingdom. Exercise your earthly privileges in a way that leads others to receive heavenly ones.