Earthquake and Darkness at Jesus’ Death, Other Historical Sources

Diego Velazquez, Cristo Crucificado (1632)

My Bible study this morning had me reading Matthew 27, in which we read of Jesus’ crucifixion and the events that happened at that time.

45 Now from the sixth hour darkness fell upon all the land until the ninth hour. 46 About the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” that is, My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” 47 And some of those who were standing there, when they heard it, began saying, “This man is calling for Elijah.” 48 Immediately one of them ran, and taking a sponge, he filled it with sour wine and put it on a reed, and gave Him a drink. 49 But the rest of them said, “Let us see whether Elijah will come to save Him.” 50 And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit. 51 And behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth shook and the rocks were split. (NASB)

I looked at a number of sources trying to verify whether other historians (besides the writers of the gospels) recorded the earthquake and darkness. Multiple sources point out that the darkness could not have been a solar eclipse, because of the position of the moon during Passover. The clearest discussion of these other historical sources was from creation.com:

Thallus wrote a history of the eastern Mediterranean world since the Trojan War. Thallus wrote his regional history in about AD 52. Although his original writings have been lost, he is specifically quoted by Julius Africanus, a renowned third century historian. Africanus states, ‘Thallus, in the third book of his histories, explains away the darkness as an eclipse of the sun—unreasonably as it seems to me.’ Apparently, Thallus attempted to ascribe a naturalistic explanation to the darkness during the crucifixion.

Phlegon was a Greek historian who wrote an extensive chronology around AD 137:

In the fourth year of the 202nd Olympiad (i.e., AD 33) there was ‘the greatest eclipse of the sun’ and that ‘it became night in the sixth hour of the day [i.e., noon] so that stars even appeared in the heavens. There was a great earthquake in Bithynia, and many things were overturned in Nicaea.’

Phlegon provides powerful confirmation of the Gospel accounts. He identifies the year and the exact time of day. In addition, he writes of an earthquake accompanying the darkness, which is specifically recorded in Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 27:51). However, like Thallus, he fallaciously attempts to interpret the darkness as a direct effect of a solar eclipse.

Africanus composed a five volume History of the World around AD 221. He was also a pagan convert to Christianity. His historical scholarship so impressed Roman Emperor Alexander Severus that Africanus was entrusted with the official responsibility of building the Emperor’s library at the Pantheon in Rome. Africanus writes:

On the whole world there pressed a most fearful darkness; and the rocks were rent by an earthquake, and many places in Judea and other districts were thrown down. This darkness Thallus, in the third book of his History, calls, as appears to me without reason, an eclipse of the sun. For the Hebrews celebrate the passover on the 14th day according to the moon, and the passion of our Savior falls on the day before the passover; but an eclipse of the sun takes place only when the moon comes under the sun. And it cannot happen at any other time but in the interval between the first day of the new moon and the last of the old, that is, at their junction: how then should an eclipse be supposed to happen when the moon is almost diametrically opposite the sun? Let opinion pass however; let it carry the majority with it; and let this portent of the world be deemed an eclipse of the sun, like others a portent only to the eye. Phlegon records that, in the time of Tiberius Caesar, at full moon, there was a full eclipse of the sun from the sixth hour to the ninth—manifestly that one of which we speak. But what has an eclipse in common with an earthquake, the rending rocks, and the resurrection of the dead, and so great a perturbation throughout the universe? Surely no such event as this is recorded for a long period.

Africanus rightly argues that a solar eclipse could not have occurred during the lunar cycle of the Passover, as this diagram shows. He also questions the link between an eclipse, an earthquake, and the miraculous events recorded in Matthew’s Gospel. Eclipses do not set off earthquakes and bodily resurrections. We also know that eclipses only last for several minutes, not three hours. For Africanus, naturalistic explanations for the darkness at the crucifixion were grossly insufficient, as he showed by applying real science.

 

Discipleship Quick Tip: Metaphors in the Bible

Discipleship Quick Tip

“How can God be a rock?” my seven-year old asked me.

This was a great opportunity to teach her about an important principle of interpreting scripture: the use of metaphors.

A metaphor is defined as “a word or phrase used to describe somebody/something else, in a way that is different from its normal use, in order to show that the two things have the same qualities and to make the description more powerful.”

Metaphors essentially create “word pictures” of one thing in our minds that help us understand another thing. In this case, my daughter had read verses like Psalm 18:31, among many others:

For who is God, but the Lord? And who is a rock, except our God? (NAS)

This verse uses the imagery of a rock to help us understand some qualities of God.

Because we had already laid the groundwork that God is a spirit and doesn’t have a physical body, she understood that God does not have physical characteristics at all. So I reminded her about other places in scripture where God is described as having body parts, such as hands and nostrils.

I then asked her to think about a large heavy rock.

“Like the one in our island [in the driveway]?”

“Yes, exactly. What is that rock like?”

She came up with several ideas, such as it is too big for her to move; it’s a place where she rests when she’s playing, if it were bigger she could hide behind it during hide-and-seek. (Others like it is smooth in some places, rough in others, gray in color, etc. didn’t seem to work in the God-imagining process!)

I then asked her to think about why David might use the word rock to help us understand God. I think you can see where this conversation led.

That was an easy one. A little while later she asked me how Jesus’ body and blood could be bread and wine. That led to a deeper conversation about how Communion and the Lord’s Supper are reminders Jesus gave us about His sacrifice on our behalf.

As parents, when we read scripture for ourselves and with our children, pause, think about, and discuss the metaphors and other figures of speech (such as similes and analogies) that the Bible authors used to communicate certain ideas to their readers. Our grasp of spiritual truths will be deeper for the process.

 

Resources

Here are some examples of metaphors in scripture.

Robertson’s Word Pictures of the New Testament is a classic and in-depth discussion of figures of speech.

This is a useful tool on “types” of Christ in the Bible (a “type” is a kind of metaphor or analogy)

I found helpful Howard Hendricks’ Living by the Book (also available for Kindle) for guidance on interpreting scripture generally. Search for the book+workbook set, too.

 

Quick Discipleship Tip: Teach your children about context

Daniel 1Reading the Bible and talking about it with your children makes a difference in the way they will approach scripture.

Tonight I sat down with 10 year old E to read the Bible. She asked me to randomly open the Bible and randomly point to a verse, and then she would ask me a question about the verse. So I did, and the verse was Daniel 1:11: “Daniel then said to the guard whom the chief official had appointed over Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah,”

She read it, thought about it for a moment, and said to me, “I think I need to read more so I can get the context.”

She has picked up, through our Bible reading, her Bible study with Mom, and her devotions, a key skill in rightly interpreting the Word of God.

Where is your citizenship?

US-Green-CardAs a student of politics I’ve been thinking about my citizenship. I love the United States, and I love our history, our diversity, and our shared values. At the same time, as a Christian I get frustrated by what I see in our nation’s evolving culture. While some changes have been good, many cultural changes have not been good, in the sense of being objectively good the way God sees things. If the US ever was a “Christian Nation,” we certainly aren’t anymore (even back in the 1970s Christian philosopher Francis Schaeffer labeled the US as “Post-Christian.”).

It’s useful, then for me to return periodically to a biblical definition of where my loyalties actually ought to lay. That is, when I look at the culture of death that is growing in our nation, the intractability of human trafficking, the passing away of our society’s moral standards and fabric that for so long supported our culture, and the growing antagonism toward traditional Christianity in the public square, I wonder whether being American is all it’s cracked up to be. If I travel abroad and meet up with other brothers and sisters in the Lord, would I be proud to say I’m an American?

As usual, scripture must guide my thinking, so what does the Bible say about being an American? Nothing directly, of course. The British colonies were just a twinkle in Europe’s eye when the canon of scripture closed. But the apostles Peter and Paul both address citizenship in interesting ways. In Phillipians 3:20, Paul writes that “our citizenship is in Heaven,” which enables us to bear earthly problems with a heavenly mindset. But Peter provides a more thorough teaching.

Nestled between the metaphor of The Church being a building of “living stones” with Christ as the cornerstone and instructions on submission to governing authorities, such as the king or one’s employer, Peter writes,

But you are a CHOSEN RACE, a ROYAL PRIESTHOOD, a HOLY NATION, aA PEOPLE FOR God’s OWN POSSESSION, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; 10 for you once were NOT A PEOPLE, but now you are THE PEOPLE OF GOD; you had NOT RECEIVED MERCY, but now you have RECEIVED MERCY.

11 Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul. 12 Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may because of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation. (1 Peter 2:9-12, NAS)

The capitalized letters tell us that these phrases are quotations, and these are from the Old Testament—phrases that were used to describe the nation of Israel (e.g., Exodus 19:16, Deut 7:6; Deut 14:2; Hosea 1:10, 2:23). This is consistent with other New Testament passages demonstrating that Christianity is an extension of Judaism, Israel’s spiritual heritage and co-heir to the promises God made to Abraham (this is a major theme of Galatians and Romans, for example).

Our National Identity. But in the context of Peter’s first century letter the phrases suggest that Christians have a distinct national identity, just as Israel did…now Christians are the chosen race, the royal priesthood, a holy nation, and a people for God’s own possession. The identifying mark of our national identity is that we once weren’t unified (we “were not a people”) but now we are unified as “the people of God.” Our nationhood is based on the mercy we have received through Christ’s atoning sacrifice. We now have received mercy—the undeserved forgiveness for our sins—and that is what distinguishes us from other people groups, not circumcision, skin color, sex, socioeconomic status, or nation-of-origin.

Our National Mission. Peter provides a mission statement for this nation: “so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.” This means the purpose for our existence is to proclaim the truth of God’s excellence to those around us, and the most excellent thing we could proclaim is the gospel message. Thus, we are to be about acting out Jesus’  Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you” (Matt 28:19-20). By definition, this means we ought to be known by our unusual message, wherever we are. If we are going out and making disciples our values are going to conflict with the culture where we find ourselves. This is likely to be uncomfortable and it will sometimes get us killed. (Just this week the North Korean government executed 13 Christians for obeying Christ in this way.) If we compromise this message and the teachings of the Lord out of some sense that we don’t want to be offensive to others or “old-fashioned” or intolerant (the values of a certain nation in which I happen to reside), we will be soon be off-track in obediently pursuing our true mission.

Our Immigration Status. Peter then uses two interesting words to describe us: “aliens and strangers.” These actually are two legal terms in the Greek.  The word translated “alien” is paroikos, “a stranger, a foreigner, one who lives in a place without the right of citizenship,” while “stranger” is parepidēmos, “one who comes from a foreign country into a city or land to reside there by the side of the natives” or “sojourning in a strange place, a foreigner.”

Did you catch that? Christians are foreigners wherever we live. We have come from our home country into a place that is not our home to live side-by-side with the natives. Our loyalty must not be displaced: we are Christians who happen to be living in a foreign land called the United States, China, Nigeria, or [insert where you reside]. This helps us make sense of our mission, because we don’t have to proclaim the excellencies of God to our countrymen, because we already know about them. It’s the citizens of the nation where we temporarily reside that need our message, so they will want to acquire naturalized citizenship and we can help our King grow our nation.

Our testimony in a foreign culture. We serve a different king than whoever is in charge of the country where we happen to reside, and we therefore represent Him where we live.  In the same way that we observe foreigners and make judgments about their people group or nation, our behavior reflects on our King and the rest of our nation. Thus, Peter instructs his countrymen to “abstain from fleshly lusts” and “keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles.”  Why? Because when we speak and act just like the people who belong to the country where we live, there won’t be anything special about us. If we’re thinking and acting just like the Gentiles around us, adapting the teachings of our true nation to the values of our temporary lodging, why would any of them see the need to change their citizenship?

Our good deeds are supposed be evidence to counteract what our opponents will say about us. Imagine living in a country where your motives are questioned, your language is defined as “hate,” you’re accused of being a threat, and your values are so unusual that people will trash you and say bad things about your home country. They’ll slander you because of your foreign ways and values; you won’t talk like them, act like them, you’ll disapprove of things they tolerate, and this will earn you their ire. UNLESS your good deeds outweigh your weirdness. It will be our good deeds that testify to why we sojourners are good to have around, why our King is righteous, and why it’s worth renouncing one citizenship for a better one. As Jesus put it, “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matt 5:16).

Fellow Christian, you are part of a multi-ethnic, multi-generational, diverse, chosen, redeemed, holy nation of priests, who are temporarily residing in a foreign country. If you’re pursuing the mission our King has assigned us, expect to be rejected and hated, because His ways will contradict the ways of this land. Nevertheless, live uprightly and do good in this land so that your King and citizenship in His Kingdom will be attractive to others. In the same way that the United States was for two centuries the destination of choice for people around the world because of its freedom and opportunities, let us make citizenship in our true Kingdom a desirable thing.

What does it mean to “be” The Church?

It seems that “being” The Church is cool these days–especially when people claiming to “be” The Church contrast it with “going” to church. But what does it actually mean to “be” The Church? Let’s look at what The Church is, and then what it means to “be” it.

First, what is “The Church”? The Church (in Christianity) is all those who believe in Jesus as the Christ (Messiah), the Son of the Living God. This confession is the rock or foundation on which Jesus declared that he would build his church (Matt 16: 13-18). That means all believers in Jesus Christ as humanity’s Messiah are The Church, and each of them is a “living stone” built upon Christ’s pillars of truth (1 Peter 2:1-5).

So what does it mean to “be” The Church? Webster’s 1828 Dictionary suggests that the verb “be” means “to stand; remain or be fixed; hence to continue; … It forms, with the infinitive, a particular future tense, which often expresses duty, necessity, or purpose.” This suggests that “to be” The Church means to have an existence or presence that matches the purposes for which it was designed and intended.

So what are the purposes of The Church? The New Testament suggests several:

  1. To evangelize non-believers (Matt 28:19).
  2. To disciple believers (i.e, train them in such a way as to produce spiritual growth and maturity) so they can replicate themselves (Matt 28:19-20; Eph 4:11-16; Eph 6:4; 1 Cor 3:5-16; 2 Tim 1:5-14).
  3. To gather together for collective worship, prayer and mutual encouragement, acting in unity for the building of the kingdom of God even while exercising our individual gifts and talents (John 4:19-24; Eph 4:1-16; Heb 10:23-25; Rev 5:9-14; Luke 19:45-46; Matt 21:12-13; Mark 11:15-17).
  4. To minister to and care for those in need within The Church (Acts 6:1-4; 1 Tim 5:3-16; Rom 12:3-13; Mark 12:31; Matt 22:39-40).
  5. To minister to and care for those in need outside The Church (Mark 12:31; Matt 22:39-40; Matt 25:31-46).
  6. To glorify God by prophesying to the surrounding community (i.e., speaking truth into the culture) through our words and deeds (e.g., 1 Peter 2:9-20).

The concerns I have about the way people (whom I love) telling me that they are “being” The Church is that they seem to have a narrow idea of what that means. Usually, friends tell me they’re headed off to “be” The Church when they are going down to serve the homeless or needy. This suggests that the people who are really “being” The Church are those whose focus or action is on #5 (and maybe #6) above.

This service is noble and is one aspect of being The Church, but it is an incomplete picture of what it means to be The Church. Without pursuing the other aspects of being The Church we can’t really achieve God’s stated purposes for The Bride of Christ, can we? Being The Church involves pursuing ALL of God’s purposes for The Church. Otherwise it’s like saying that my bride is only really “being” my wife when she feeds me and praises me on Facebook (thanks for that, though, honey!).

Paul foresaw this problem when he warned Christians to avoid thinking that there is only one really useful set of gifts or activities in The Church. He wrote (1 Cor 12:17-31),

“If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? 18 But now God has placed the members, each one of them, in the body, just as He desired. 19 If they were all one member, where would the body be? 20 But now there are many members, but one body. 21 And the eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you”; or again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 22 On the contrary, it is much truer that the members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary; 23 and those members of the body which we deem less honorable, on these we bestow more abundant honor, and our less presentable members become much more presentable, 24 whereas our more presentable members have no need of it. But God has so composed the body, giving more abundant honor to that member which lacked, 25 so that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. 26 And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.

“27 Now you are Christ’s body, and individually members of it. 28 And God has appointed in The Church, first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, various kinds of tongues. 29 All are not apostles, are they? All are not prophets, are they? All are not teachers, are they? All are not workers of miracles, are they? 30 All do not have gifts of healings, do they? All do not speak with tongues, do they? All do not interpret, do they? 31 But earnestly desire the greater gifts.” (NAS)

People who think that they are “being” The Church only when they’re only doing one or two of The Church’s purposes (such as what Paul calls “helps” in verse 28 above) risk developing a tunnel vision of The Church that weakens and dilutes The Church and The Gospel. Each congregation of believers ought to be pursuing all of what it means to “be” The Church—when this happens, we will have the LORD’s desired impact in our world.

Election 2012: A Difficult Choice (Brief)

This is a tough one.

Ideally, the 2012 elections would have produced a viable presidential candidate who is a Christian committed to understanding and applying the principles found in the Bible, both for personal righteousness and government action.

Neither candidate fits in this category: Mitt Romney is a Mormon, whose faith tradition differs significantly from traditional and historical Christianity on many important points, including the nature of God and Jesus. Barack Obama is a Mainline Protestant, whose church and preacher in Chicago preached primarily Liberation Theology, a Karl Marx-informed version of the social gospel that tends to reject traditional biblical standards of personal righteousness. (I do not believe Mr. Obama is a Muslim, because so many of his policies are directly against Islamic teaching, including support for abortion, same-sex marriage, and his continued prosecution of the wars in which Muslims are the primary people who are killed.) Both candidates show that they and their campaigns are willing to be selectively honest about their own and each other’s’ records.

As a Christian in this less-than-ideal situation I must then decide which of the candidates, regardless of his religion, more closely match God’s intentions for civil government, as expressed in the Bible. (There are many examples in the Bible of God’s people temporarily partnering with non-believers in the political arena, including Joseph, Daniel, Esther, Haggai and Joshua, Ezra and Nehemiah.)

There are four main purposes of government, according to the Bible. Below, I briefly list each one, with core verses, and describe how I think the candidates measure up. I should note that both candidates envision a much greater role for the civil government than can be supported by what the Bible says its role ought to be.

If you’re interested in a more thorough statement of my reasoning, I go into more detail here (or scroll down to the previous post).

1. The civil government is to encourage people to do good (Rom 13:3-4; 1 Peter 2:13-14). 

My conclusion:  A Draw. Both men encourage “good citizenship,” though Romney personally models it more clearly than Obama.

2. The civil government is to discourage citizens from doing evil, and to punish people who do evil (Rom 13:3-4; 1 Peter 2:13-14). This includes managing a just criminal justice system (e.g., Deut 16:18-20; Psalm 72:1-2).

My conclusion: Romney, because of his support for the biblical ideal of marriage (as opposed to Obama’s position that legitimizes sinful behavior), and support (though tepid) for the unborn. Romney’s legal philosophy is based on Natural Law theory, as opposed to Obama’s, which is based on Critical Law and Legal Positivism.

3. The civil government is to provide a secure and a tranquil social environment in which the gospel can be freely proclaimed (1 Tim 2:1-4). 

My conclusion: Romney, because of the Obama administration’s policies that limit “freedom of religion” to “freedom of worship,” and its assertion that company owners give up their freedom of religious expression when they enter the public economy.

4. The civil government is to facilitate a just social and economic environment in which the poor are not oppressed (Ps 72:3-4; 12-14) .To provide for those in society who have no family or church means of support (Ps 72:12-14; 1 Tim 5:3-16), but without discouraging people from laboring to provide for themselves (many Proverbs praise diligent labor and criticize slothfulness; 2 Thess 3:8). 

My conclusion: Draw. Neither set of the candidates’ programs come close to the Bible’s approach to caring for society’s “truly needy.” Obama’s policies emphasize government benefits, but have a high risk for encouraging dependency on the government. Romney’s policies don’t adequately emphasize local and faith-based organizations’ solutions to poverty.

My final conclusion: I will vote for Mr. Romney, because far fewer of Mr. Obama’s policies match what The Bible says are the appropriate roles for the civil government.

Regardless of whether you agree with my reasoning, it is critical that faithful Christians show up to vote on November 6 (or earlier where that is permitted). If we do not express our beliefs in the political arena, we should not expect our government, society, or culture to be friendly to us. To paraphrase a famous saying, “All that is needed for non-Christian views to succeed is for Christians to do nothing.”

Again, you can check out my detailed reasoning here (or scroll down to the previous post).

Haggai’s first prophesy continued (1:12-15)

For the introduction and historical context for this study, please go here.
For my post on part one of Haggai’s first prophecy, please go here.

In the first part of this prophecy, God reveals that His people got off-track in rebuilding the temple; facing discouragement opposition, they stopped His work, and then in order to justify the work stoppage, they told themselves that it just wasn’t the time for the work to get done. Instead, they focused on their own homes, building “paneled” (luxurious) houses. Thus, they had their priorities out of whack, separating themselves from God.

In the rest of the prophecy the LORD calls them to repentance, to recalibrate their priorities, and to get back into right relationship with Him.

5 Now therefore, thus says the LORD of hosts, “Consider your ways! 6 You have sown much, but harvest little; you eat, but there is not enough to be satisfied; you drink, but there is not enough to become drunk; you put on clothing, but no one is warm enough; and he who earns, earns wages to put into a purse with holes.” 7 Thus says the LORD of hosts, “Consider your ways!” (NAS) 

Twice He says, “Consider your ways!” (The NIV translates it “Give careful thought to your ways!”).  Now, whenever the Lord repeats himself it’s not because he lacks imagination, it’s because He is making a point very strongly. Even though their houses are paneled, their financial situation is difficult—their harvest doesn’t match their sowing, they never seem to have enough to eat or drink, their clothing is spare, they can’t seem to keep hold of their money. Somehow, God is connecting these situations with what they are (or are not) doing.

The reason for this never-enough life they’re living is revealed in verses 8-11: God himself has withheld His blessings.

8 “Go up to the mountains, bring wood and rebuild the temple, that I may be pleased with it and be glorified,” says the LORD. 9 “You look for much, but behold, it comes to little; when you bring it home, I blow it away. Why?” declares the LORD of hosts, “Because of My house which lies desolate, while each of you runs to his own house. 10 Therefore, because of you the sky has withheld its dew and the earth has withheld its produce. 11 I called for a drought on the land, on the mountains, on the grain, on the new wine, on the oil, on what the ground produces, on men, on cattle, and on all the labor of your hands.” 

Why has he withheld the blessings of the harvest? It’s because they have neglected building his house (1:4,9). They rebuilt the altar and the foundation for the temple, but then stopped (Ezra 3-4). They hunkered down in their self-centered worlds and forgot their calling as the people of God! He has been disciplining them, not through catastrophe, but by simply giving them only enough to get by. Because they’re off-track in terms of their priorities and obedience, they have brought poverty on themselves, even though they try to project an image of success through their paneled houses.

What does God want instead? He wants them to

> Reflect on their purpose as His children (“Consider your ways!”). By doing this, they will realize their need for humility before the Lord.
> Be obedient (“rebuild the temple, that I may be pleased with it and be glorified”). By doing this, He will be glorified.

Notice what God doesn’t promise: He doesn’t explicitly tell them that if they consider their ways and repent they will get a better harvest or have an easier life. He simply points out the facts of their situation, tells them why it is what it is, and tells them what to do instead. No new covenant is established, He just lets them process these things for themselves.

I love their response.

12 Then Zerubbabel [and] Joshua [and] all the remnant of the people, obeyed the voice of the LORD their God and the words of Haggai the prophet, as the LORD their God had sent him. And the people showed reverence for the LORD.

Their first response was not to get busy doing stuff, it was to humble themselves and reverence the Lord. This is what the Lord really wanted in the first place…He wanted their hearts. His response to them is immediate:

13 Then Haggai, the messenger of the LORD, spoke by the commission of the LORD to the people saying, “ ‘I am with you,’ declares the LORD.”

They must have been thrilled! Just a few minutes ago, God wouldn’t even claim them as His Own (1:2), and now he declares that He is with them!

After they re-oriented their hearts in God’s direction, three weeks later they went back to work:

14 So the LORD stirred up the spirit of Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and the spirit of Joshua the son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and the spirit of all the remnant of the people; and they came and worked on the house of the LORD of hosts, their God, 15 on the twenty-fourth day of the sixth month in the second year of Darius the king.

What can we learn from this exchange?

Remember, The Church is now the temple of the Lord (1 Cor 3:16-17; 1 Cor 6:19-20; 2 Cor 6:16; Eph 2:19-22; 1 Peter 2:4-6); each Christian is part of The Church; your local congregation is a collection of pieces of The Church in your community.

  1. God wants our hearts. God didn’t “return” to his people when they went back to rebuilding a building, He came back to then when they humbled themselves and reoriented their hearts toward Him. If you, your family, or your church are not humble before the Lord, then you will be adrift spiritually. Even if things seem successful from a worldly perspective (after all, the Jews were in paneled houses), you might not be pleasing the Lord.
  2. Our hearts can get discouraged and distracted. When we get our spiritual priorities out of order, we miss out on opportunities that God wants for us. If we listen to those who discourage (like the Samaritans did to the Jewish remnant) we will lose focus and drive to do what we’re supposed to do. Watch out for leaders or others who are about the business of discouraging and who exhibit a spirit of condemnation. They will push the faithful off the right track instead of edifying them, and dishearten the poor in spirit instead of ministering to them.
  3. God wants our obedience. It’s not that the Jews were particularly evil! They just weren’t obedient. What is God calling you, your family, or your church to do, right now, this moment, where He has planted you? For parents and church leaders, this means calling and equipping those for whom you’re responsible. If you say you’re supposed to evangelize, but never train or equip for evangelizing, the evangelizing won’t happen. If you ask a child to do a task, but never train the child how to do the task, they’ll be handicapped from the outset. In both of these cases, the real problem is with the leader or the parent, not the unequipped church member or untrained child.
  4. Pay attention to the clues! The Jewish remnant wasn’t in right relationship with God, and so He withheld blessings. Are there areas of spiritual blessing that your family or church are lacking? Are you or your children drifting from the Lord? Are people not being saved in your church? Has spiritual growth atrophied? Are spiritually mature people tuning out and leaving instead of plugging in? These may be signs of the Lord withholding his harvest from you because of your wrong priorities, distracted hearts, and disobedience.

Applying these lessons to you is up to you. Consider what aspects of your life you may need to re-orient and recalibrate in order for the Lord to declare to you, “I am with you.” Humble yourself, seek first His kingdom, and He will add all these things to you. I can tell you from experience that when you take these first steps, the Lord will encourage and energize you in ways you may never have known.

Haggai’s First Prophecy (Part 1): What are your priorities?

For the introduction and historical context for this study, please go here.

One of the first questions that came up in our Bible study had to do with prophecies telling the future. While some prophecies do foretell the future (for example, Haggai 2:6-9), the purpose of most Bible prophesy is to speak the Lord’s truth to a person or the community, to praise righteous attitudes and behavior or to criticize unrighteousness in order to bring about a change. Haggai’s first prophecy is of this type.

This first set of verses reveals the central problems in the hearts of the Jewish remnant:

“Thus says the LORD of hosts, ‘This people says, “The time has not come, even the time for the house of the LORD to be rebuilt.”’” 3 Then the word of the LORD came by Haggai the prophet, saying, 4 “Is it time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses while this house lies desolate?” (Haggai 2:2-4 NAS)

In these verses we see three points that reveal problems with the Jewish remnant.

  1. Whatever they’ve been doing (or not doing), they have become separated from the Lord, because the Lord calls them “this people” instead of “my people.”
  2. The Lord critiques the way that they talk about the temple rebuilding project. Fourteen years earlier they enthusiastically rebuilt the altar and temple foundation, but then faced opposition and discouragement (Ezra 4). Now, they’ve rewritten their history in a way that justifies their lack of progress. “Oh, we would have been rebuilding the temple all this time if the Lord really wanted us to. But He must not want us to, because otherwise we would have been rebuilding it.”
  3. To make matters worse, God points out that they were improving their own houses (the reference to “paneled houses” suggests an element of luxury to the appearances of their homes) while the temple went neglected.

In order to justify their own disobedience, the people concluded that the time just wasn’t right for doing what the Lord asked them to do. They then replaced their work on the Lord’s house by building homes that would be impressive to visitors and comfortable for themselves. The Lord, however, points out that their hearts had wrong priorities. By giving in to the outside pressures from the Samaritans, justifying their own lack of progress, and focusing on themselves instead, they brought about their own separation from the Lord, so that He would not even claim possession of them.

As the people of God, we are to keep the Lord’s temple (the people of His Church) as a high priority in our lives; we’re to build up and edify each other instead of merely focusing our attention on our own immediate needs (Ephesians 4:11-16). We’re supposed to have an accurate understanding of our place in the big picture so that the Lord can use us where we are, and so that we don’t get trapped into what the culture tells us is important (Rom 12:2-3).

As a parent, part of my job is to help my children see how their actions and inaction demonstrate their priorities as children of God. The things that we do and the words we speak reflect God’s place in our hearts (Luke 6:45). While my children will always be mine, it’s more important that they be the Lord’s. Don’t be afraid to seek the Lord’s mind regarding your own and your children’s hearts so that you can get to the real problems. Haggai didn’t just criticize the lack of work on the temple; the Lord gave him the understanding of what the real heart problems were.

Shepherd your children’s hearts to love, obey, and serve the Lord with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength.

When your children say to you…

ExodusPageReading about the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt today, I was reminded of how God views our jobs as fathers (and parents). While giving the instructions to the Israelites about the Passover lamb and the unleavened bread, God foretells three specific conversations

  1. And when your children say to you, ‘What does this rite mean to you?’ you shall say, ‘It is a Passover sacrifice to the LORD who passed over the houses of the sons of Israel in Egypt when He smote the Egyptians, but spared our homes.’” (Ex 12:26-27 NAS)
  2. You shall tell your son on that day, saying, ‘It is because of what the LORD did for me when I came out of Egypt.’ And it shall serve as a sign to you on your hand, and as a reminder on your forehead, that the law of the LORD may be in your mouth; for with a powerful hand the LORD brought you out of Egypt. Therefore, you shall keep this ordinance at its appointed time from year to year. (Ex 13:8-10)
  3. And it shall be when your son asks you in time to come, saying, ‘What is this?’ then you shall say to him, ‘With a powerful hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery. It came about, when Pharaoh was stubborn about letting us go, that the LORD killed every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both the firstborn of man and the firstborn of beast. Therefore, I sacrifice to the LORD the males, the first offspring of every womb, but every firstborn of my sons I redeem.’  So it shall serve as a sign on your hand and as phylacteries on your forehead, for with a powerful hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt.” (Ex 13:14-16)

What can we learn from this? 

  1. As parents we have the first and foremost responsibility to explain to our children the reasons for our beliefs and worship, not just dictate that we go to church, say grace before dinner, or any other part of our Christian walk. This is central to discipling our children.
  2. These conversations are regular and planned, not random. For Israel, the conversations took place at specific times–it wasn’t left to chance.
  3. The purposes of the conversations are to pass on the knowledge and understanding of the Lord and His ways, and the basis for our faith. If we fail to do this, we should not be surprised when our children don’t hold onto the things we believe are important.
  4. These conversations are between parents and children, not youth group leaders, or Sunday school teachers, or pastors. Parents, you can’t delegate this to others, because you are in the best position to equip and influence your own children. Pastors, youth leaders, and Sunday school teachers come alongside you in this process.

The apostle Peter wrote, “sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence” (1 Peter 3:15). 

Being ready to make a defense includes preparing conversations with our children. Have you explained to your kids why you do what you do, and why it is important? Find an opportunity to do this sometime this week; your drive to church will be a great time!

Haggai’s Prophecies to Those Rebuilding the Temple

For the last several weeks I’ve been leading a study at my church of the book of Haggai. For a variety of reasons the Lord really laid on my heart that we should study this book carefully. Haggai gave his prophecies when the people of Israel were trying to rebuild their temple after it had been torn down years before, and after they came out of exile but still faced opposition and discouragement.The temple was important to the Israelites because in Old Testament times, God dwelled there (after first dwelling in the tabernacle). Beginning with the New Testament, however, Christians are the Lord’s temple, and the Lord dwells in us (1 Cor 3:16-17; 1 Cor 6:19-20; 2 Cor 6:16; Eph 2:19-22), and Christians are the people of the Lord, His holy priesthood and nation (1 Peter 2:4-6, 9). So my application of the messages Haggai gave to Israel goes something like this: What was Haggai’ message? Why did the Israelites need to hear it? What was their response? What did God do? What do the answers to these questions mean for Christians today? And for me, what does Haggai have to say to those struggling to rebuild their own little corner of Christ’s Church?As a parent, one of the greatest struggles I’ve faced has been explaining to my children why difficult stuff happens. We’ve had our share of this over the last several months, and because some of these problems relate to church, my wife and I have had to shepherd our children’s hearts through these difficulties. Like the Israelites, the congregation to which we belong is in the process of rebuilding our “temple.” I’ve found Haggai to be very encouraging, because this little book is showing me facets of the Lord’s heart for His people that I didn’t understand fully until recently. Well, I still don’t understand it all fully, but I’m getting there. I hope you find these posts and lessons from Haggai encouraging, too, wherever you are.

Introduction

Haggai was a prophet in the time of King Darius of Persia. His prophecies were all given in the year 520 BC, shortly after the Israelite remnant returned to Israel from exile in Persia (they remained under Persian domination). The events of this period were…

Picture

Context: External opposition to the temple reconstructionAfter 70 years in captivity, Israelites are returning to the Promised Land, where they want to rebuild the temple, which had been destroyed by the Babylonians. This begins around 536 BC, and we read in Ezra 3 that the initial rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem was going very well. Unfortunately, while Israel had been in captivity, Samaritans had settled the land around Jerusalem. When the Samaritans found out that the Israelites were rebuilding the temple, they offered to help, but the Jewish leaders refused because they had nothing common (in terms of their faith) with the Samaritans (Ezra 4:1-3). The Samaritans then sought to delay or stop the temple rebuilding entirely; they first discouraged and frightened them (Ezra 4:4-5), and then hired counselors (lawyers) that interfered with the Jews’ relations with the Persian kings for several years. Finally, in 534 BC Artaxerxes ordered work on the temple stopped by force of arms (Ezra 4:17-23).Fourteen years later, in 520 BC, the prophets Haggai and Zechariah prophesied to the Jews, prompting Zerubbabel (the heir to Judah’s throne) and Jeshua (the high priest)  to begin rebuilding the temple with the Persian King Darius’ permission (Ezra 4:24 – 5:2). In that year Tattenai, governor of the region, wrote Darius, asking whether the Jews had permission to rebuild the temple. Darius confirmed this, and ordered Tattenai not to interfere with the rebuilding and in fact to fund the process with his region’s tax revenues (Ezra 5:3-6:13).Haggai and Zechariah receive and pass on their prophecies in 520-518, and by 515 the temple was completed (Ezra 5:1 and 6:14).

Haggai consists of four prophecies, precisely dated. Here they are with their general themes:

1.       1:1-1:18 (Sept. 1, 520 BC) Your lack of blessing is because you have focused on your own houses and not on the house of the Lord. “Consider your ways!”

2.       2:1-9 (Oct. 21, 520) The temple you are rebuilding may not look like the old glorious temple, but the glory of the new temple will be greater than the former.

3.       2:10-19 (Dec 24, 520) You have allowed unclean behavior to contaminate my people’s work. Set your heart on obedience from this day forward, and I will bless you.

4.       2:20-23 (Dec 24, 520) Zerubbabel will be like a signet ring to the nations.

Next time: Haggai’s first prophesy