Bulletin Articles

Bulletin Articles

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How Did the Hopeless Find Hope?

Sunday, September 25, 2022

The past two weeks’ articles have examined the fall and destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 586 BC.  In the first, we saw that it was far from a sterile report of a far-off military engagement; rather it was the catastrophic collapse of the Jews’ society, nation, and way of life, along with many of their most fundamental assumptions, and topped off by an incalculably high cost in human life and suffering.  In the second, we discovered that, while they had every right to mourn this disaster, they had no right to be surprised.  God had told them it was going to happen unless they fixed their behavior, for centuries on end.  They ignored his verbal warnings and increasingly severe penalties, imposed in part to encourage them to shape up and avoid this worst one that still lay in store.  As they struggled to comprehend all that had happened, they acknowledged they had brought this upon themselves.

The Lord is in the right,

        for I have rebelled against his word;

but hear, all you peoples,

        and         see my suffering;

my young women and my young men

        have gone into captivity.

(Lamentations 1.18)

For all of the Israelites’ many—many—faults, there is one significant point in their favor.  After being so thoroughly crushed in payment for their sins, and living as they did, in a world so full of polytheism and national patron idols, many in their position would have attributed their capital’s fall, and especially the destruction of their temple, to their god’s inability to protect them.  This was, coincidentally, a tactic employed by the Assyrians, during their (notably unsuccessful) siege of Jerusalem more than a century prior.

“And do not listen to Hezekiah when he misleads you by saying, ‘The Lord will deliver us.’ Has any of the gods of the nations ever delivered his land out of the hand of the king of Assyria? Where are the gods of Hamath and Arpad? Where are the gods of Sepharvaim, Hena, and Ivvah? Have they delivered Samaria out of my hand? Who among all the gods of the lands have delivered their lands out of my hand, that the Lord should deliver Jerusalem out of my hand?”

(2 Kings 18.32-35)

Without a doubt, there were Israelites whose faith in God failed them; but on the whole their strong cultural bonds and ancient traditions carried most of Judah’s survivors  through their captivity without losing their most basic faith in God.  Between a stubborn refusal to attribute failure to God, and their (alas! too late) reflections upon the many warnings he had made to them and to their fathers to this effect, they concluded, quite correctly, that in fact God had not only allowed, but actually caused their fall, and even the destruction of his own Temple!

The Lord has scorned his altar,

        disowned his sanctuary;

he has delivered into the hand of the enemy

        the walls of her palaces;

they raised a clamor in the house of the Lord

        as on the day of festival.

The Lord determined to lay in ruins

        the wall of the daughter of Zion…

(Lamentations 2.7-8)

By finally, belatedly, listening to the warnings issued by God, they also recognized that they had come with a blessing for the future:

In that day the remnant of Israel and the survivors of the house of Jacob will no more lean on him who struck them, but will lean on the Lord, the Holy One of Israel, in truth. A remnant will return, the remnant of Jacob, to the mighty God.

(Isaiah 10.20-21)

Since they’d seen the fulfillment of the threats, they reasoned that the blessings were trustworthy, too.

But this I call to mind,

        and therefore I have hope:

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;

        his mercies never come to an end;

they are new every morning;

        great is your faithfulness.

“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,

        “therefore I will hope in him.”

The Lord is good to those who wait for him,

        to the soul who seeks him.

It is good that one should wait quietly

        for the salvation of the Lord.

(Lamentations 3.21-26)

God brought them back to their ancestral homeland and even had them rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple.  But considering the grandiose nature of the promises, it always seemed a bit underwhelming, a mere shadow of Israel’s golden age under King David.  God repeatedly pictured the period of restoration as a return to David’s leadership.

“I will rescue my flock; they shall no longer be a prey. And I will judge between sheep and sheep. And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them. I am the Lord; I have spoken.”

(Ezekiel 34.22-24)

And it wasn’t to be just a pale imitation of an old, defunct kingdom, allowed to stand briefly among the surrounding nations.

In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious.

(Isaiah 11.10)

The Gentiles would seek this new David, and desire to become subjects in his “kingdom that shall never be destroyed” (Da 2.44). 

 

When God’s people finally stopped focusing on what they wanted and worried about God’s will instead, they found hope.  Despite the suffering and despair, the best was yet to come, and they would be the vehicle to bring the Messiah into the world, blessing us all immeasurably.  We’ll look deeper into the Messiah and how his work mirrored Israel’s story of destruction and restoration, in next week’s article.  For now, learn from their experience—their mistakes—and start seeking God’s will rather than your own, before the time comes for the temple of your body to fall.

Jeremy Nettles

Why Did God Allow This?

Sunday, September 18, 2022

In last week’s article, we sought to better understand what the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem in 586 BC meant for the Jews.  It wasn’t only a grave threat to their way of life, but also to their identity as a nation—as God’s chosen people.  They were left to wonder, how could this happen?  This is symbolized in the Hebrew title of the Old Testament book we call Lamentations, ’Ekhah (אֵיכָה)—“How,” taken from its first line.  The book mourns the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, together with its attendant misery, horror, and death. 

So, why did God allow his people to suffer so much, and to have their inheritance taken away from them?  Two generations died in captivity, before Cyrus gave them the option to return home.

Whoever is among you of all his people, may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and rebuild the house of the Lord, the God of Israel… (Ezra 1.3)

But despite Cyrus’ instructions to his subjects to help the Jews along on their way, this lofty goal of returning to repossess their ancestral homeland and rebuild their nation, was out of reach for most of the Jews.  More would return to Jerusalem later, but to this day there have always remained far more Jews dispersed among the nations, than in their ancestral homeland.  Why did God allow his promises to be gutted like this?  Well, he didn’t.  In fact, it was always part of the plan.

God promised them this land, but he also promised to discipline them when they sinned.  He told them, “If you walk in my statutes and observe my commandments and do them, then I will give you” everything needed for not only survival, but flourishing (Le 26.3-4).  In the same oracle, he later said,

“But if you will not listen to me and will not do all these commandments, if you spurn my statutes, and if your soul abhors my rules, so that you will not do all my commandments, but break my covenant, then I will do this to you: I will visit you with panic, with wasting disease and fever that consume the eyes and make the heart ache. And you shall sow your seed in vain, for your enemies shall eat it.” (Leviticus 26.14-16)

He was just getting started.  The list of punishments was far longer than the promised blessings, and four times he said something like, “And if in spite of this you will not listen to me, then I will discipline you again” (v18; cf. vv21, 23, 27-28).  The promised punishments culminate with the one most pertinent to our chosen topic:

“And I will scatter you among the nations, and I will unsheathe the sword after you, and your land shall be a desolation, and your cities shall be a waste.” (Leviticus 26.33)

Nor was this the only time God told his people they could choose one of two paths.  For just one other example, what did God tell Solomon, after filling the newly-dedicated Temple with his glory and promising, “For now I have chosen and consecrated this house that my name may be there forever” (2Ch 7.16)?

“And as for you, if you will walk before me as David your father walked, doing according to all that I have commanded you…, then I will establish your royal throne….

“But if you turn aside and forsake my statutes…, then I will pluck you up from my land…, and this house that I have consecrated for my name, I will cast out of my sight… (2 Chronicles 7.17-20)

It’s the same thing he’d said back in Leviticus.  As he promised, so he did.  God showed Ezekiel a vision of his glory abandoning the Temple; it fell to Babylon soon after (Eze 10).

God always keeps his promises.  Sometimes he goes to greater lengths to reassure his people of the things he has clearly stated once, as he did when “he swore by himself” to Abraham that he would bless him with a nation of descendants (He 6.13), but this is reserved for only the most exceptional cases.  Another of these is visible in Psalm 110, which refers to David in its superscript, but is obviously about the Messiah to come:

The Lord says to my Lord:  “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.” (Psalm 110.1)

And later in the same Psalm,

The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, “You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.” (Psalm 110.4)

Unlike the qualified promises he gave to the Israelites, this one stands as an absolute, with no “if” to be found.  Unlike the Levitical priesthood that saw its purpose melt away when the Temple burned to the ground, Christ’s priesthood isn’t tied to an earthly dwelling place, or a normal human lifespan.  He’s always interceding on our behalf, and ready to help us when we need it most.

The Temple’s fall forced the Jews to question the meaning and purpose of their existence.  They wrestled with it, and formed a cautious hope that there was more to the story—that God wasn’t done with them, yet, and the best may be yet to come.  They were right!  We’ll delve deeper into the hope they found, in next week’s article; but for now, learn from the Israelites’ failure to heed all of the “ifs” attached to God’s promises.  We don’t have to worry about Jesus our high priest failing, or his kingdom being conquered; but there are several “ifs” for us to keep in mind, today:

If we have died with him, we will also live with him;

if we endure, we will also reign with him;

if we deny him, he also will deny us;

if we are faithless, he remains faithful—

for he cannot deny himself. (2 Timothy 2.12-13)

Jeremy Nettles

What Did the Destruction Mean?

Sunday, September 11, 2022

“Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?                        

Look and see

if there is any sorrow like my sorrow,

which was brought upon me,

which the Lord inflicted

on the day of his fierce anger.

From on high he sent fire;

into my bones he made it descend;

he spread a net for my feet;

he turned me back;

he has left me stunned,

faint all the day long.” (Lamentations 1.12-13)

Do you remember 9/11?  If you’re old enough, then of course you do.  Even without a year specified, and even though “9/11” could mean a few different things, you didn’t have to stop to select one.  Some of that may have to do with the timing of this article, but that’s neither the only, nor the largest reason you immediately thought of particular incidents that occurred on September 11, 2001.  It was a once-in-a-lifetime inflection point—a date when everything changed, and everyone knew why.  There’s now a generation of young adults who don’t remember that day, and to them it could perhaps seem like the old coots are making a fuss over nothing. 

“Look among the nations, and see;

wonder and be astounded.

For I am doing a work in your days

that you would not believe if told.” (Habakkuk 1.5)

The death toll from the terrorist attacks was 2,977.  Each of those deaths is terrible, but more than 9,000 people die every day in this country.  September 11 was a blip on the graph of 2001, but it amounted to only about one-tenth of one percent of the country’s 2.4 million deaths that year.  But that’s not all it meant.  It wasn’t just the number of deaths, or the thousands of injured who survived.  Everything changed that day, because it was an attack on our way of life.  The West’s corruption, hedonism, and materialism were major elements of the terrorists’ motives, which is why they primarily targeted the World Trade Center—a symbol of economic prosperity, but also of greed.

“For from the least to the greatest of them,

everyone is greedy for unjust gain;

and from prophet to priest,

everyone deals falsely.” (Jeremiah 6.13)

But those unsavory aspects of America were enabled by more positive elements—hard work, planning ahead, rewarding good behavior, and allowing economic and religious freedom.  To the average American, that all went without saying on September 10.  The next morning, everything changed.  The attacks shattered our illusion of safety; but it wasn’t that we were no longer safe.  It impacted us so severely, because it showed us we’d never been as safe as we’d thought!

This is the exultant city

that lived securely,

that said in her heart,

“I am, and there is no one else.”

What a desolation she has become,

a lair for wild beasts!

Everyone who passes by her

hisses and shakes his fist. (Zephaniah 2.14)

But in an even deeper sense, watching the attacks unfold on live TV told us at a gut level that the underpinnings of our society were much more fragile and susceptible to harm than we thought.  It told us that people we’d never met, whom we didn’t consider to be our enemies, could feel so aggrieved by our existence, and our economic, religious, and strategic decisions, as to lash out against us in a bid to sow chaos, pain, and death.

That’s a very brief (and not at all thorough) summary of what 9/11 meant.  But the passages quoted along the way weren’t about 9/11, or about America.  They were about the fall and destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple to Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylonian army in 586 BC.  There’s some debate about the exact year and date, but on or just after the 7th of Av, corresponding roughly to July 16, 586 BC, everything changed for God’s chosen people.  It was an existential crisis.  He had said of the Temple,

“I have chosen and consecrated this house that my name may be there forever. My eyes and my heart will be there for all time.” (2 Chronicles 7.16)

Yet now that Temple was gone, and so were the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the capital; and the Davidic line of kings who were promised that city’s throne forever; and the nation’s populace, who were taken into exile; and to a great extent the nation’s identity, as they were eaten up and left to rot away in their enemies’ lands (Le 26.38-39).  Of the land God had promised to the descendants of Abraham forever, they said,

O God, the nations have come into your inheritance;

they have defiled your holy temple;

they have laid Jerusalem in ruins.

They have given the bodies of your servants

to the birds of the heavens for food,

the flesh of your faithful to the beasts of the earth.

They have poured out their blood like water

all around Jerusalem,

and there was no one to bury them.

We have become a taunt to our  neighbors,

mocked and derided by those around us.

How long, O Lord? Will you be angry forever?

Will your jealousy burn like fire? (Psalm 79.1-5)

Our 9/11 is only the merest taste of what that day, now remembered as Tisha B’Av, meant to the Jews.  Next week, we’ll see why God, despite his many promises, allowed this to happen, and what it all means for us.  But for now, use the memory of that awful day 21 years ago, to better understand how the Jews felt during their captivity.

Why do you forget us forever,

why do you forsake us for so many days?

Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored!

Renew our days as of old—

unless you have utterly rejected us,

and you remain exceedingly angry with us. (Lamentations 5.20-22)

Jeremy Nettles

Cleaned and Dressed

Sunday, September 04, 2022

Now on the tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement. It shall be for you a time of holy convocation, and you shall afflict yourselves and present a food offering to the Lord. And you shall not do any work on that very day, for it is a Day of Atonement, to make atonement for you before the Lord your God. (Leviticus 23.27-28)

What sets the Day of Atonement apart from all the other holidays God gave to Israel is that it was the one time in the year when the high priest was to enter the Most Holy Place to perform his priestly duties.  He was to burn incense before the ark and sprinkle blood from animals offered to atone for his own sins, and those of the people.  That was the central and defining moment of the holiday, but it involved many other important details.

Having already selected a bull for his own sin offering and a ram for his burnt offering, the high priest was to begin the ritual by bathing and putting on his designated clothing (Le 16.3-4).  Then the populace was to present him with two goats—one as a sin offering—and a ram—as the people’s burnt offering (v5).  The high priest would then present the bull before God at the entrance of the tent of meeting, kill it, and take some of its blood, along with incense and coals from the altar, into the Most Holy Place, where the core of the ritual was to be performed (vv11-12). 

Having filled the room with smoke from the incense and sprinkled the blood of his sin offering (the bull) before the ark of the covenant (vv13-14), he would then exit and retrieve the first goat, which was the people’s sin offering, and repeat the sprinkling process before the ark (v15).  The purpose of all this was “to make atonement … for himself and for his house and for all the assembly of Israel” (v17), but there’s still more to come!  This includes making atonement for the altar, putting blood from the goat on its horns in order to “cleanse it and consecrate it from the uncleannesses of the people of Israel” (v19).  They were left with two rams still alive, as well as one goat.  The high priest was to lay his hands on the goat’s head and confess Israel’s sins over it, then commit the goat to a man previously selected for the task of leading the goat away into a remote part of the wilderness, where he was to “let the goat go free” (v22). 

Sending away the scapegoat, symbolically carrying far away the guilt from their sins, was the culmination of the atonement ritual; but we should, perhaps, not be surprised that there are more duties to follow, for all involved.  There are still a dead bull, a dead goat, and two live rams—sin offerings and burnt offerings left unfinished, with further processing and immolation on the schedule.  But while this was the high priest’s job, he had something else to do, first. 

Then Aaron shall come into the tent of meeting and shall take off the linen garments that he put on when he went into the Holy Place and shall leave them there. And he shall bathe his body in water in a holy place and put on his garments and come out and offer his burnt offering and the burnt offering of the people and make atonement for himself and for the people. And the fat of the sin offering he shall burn on the altar. (Leviticus 16.23-25)

Then, there’s the man who had taken the scapegoat out and set him loose in the wilderness.  He was still required to “wash his clothes and bathe his body in water, and afterward he may come into the camp” (v26). 

Finally, although the offerings were now completed, the portion of the sin offerings (the bull and goat) burned on the altar was surprisingly small, amounting to the animals bulk fat, kidneys, and part of the liver (cf. Le 4.8-9).  What was to be done with the great majority of each carcass?  It was to be taken out of the camp and

burned up with fire. And he who burns them shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water, and afterward he may come into the camp. (Leviticus 16.27-28)

In short, the idea is that the sins of the priesthood and the populace have been symbolically transferred to the scapegoat, and the penalty for those sins transferred to the bull and other goat.  The act of sending the former away, and offering the latter up to God brings about reconciliation between God and his people—but everyone who came into contact with that sin, even in the process of casting it away, is now tainted by it, and must clean off that taint before re-entering society.  It’s like the reaction any mom would have, after dad and the boys finish fixing the septic tank or sewer line and try to come inside: “Stay out there and strip. I’ll get the hose—you are not bringing that into my house!”

God went to great lengths to show Israel how they should look at sin, teaching them in a visceral way to be disgusted by it and keep away from its taint.  He wants us to learn that same lesson, but today there is no longer a need to offer these annual sacrifices, because Jesus is the reality—the one who cast these shadows.  He approached God’s heavenly throne with his own perfect blood, the only truly atoning sacrifice for sin.  He “suffered outside the gate” (He 13.12) and carried away the sins of the world, not just symbolically but spiritually.  We all participated spiritually in offering him up as our atoning sacrifice.  What must we do, before we’re fit to enter the city of God?  Like everyone involved in the sacrifices on the Day of Atonement, we must have “our bodies washed with pure water” (He 10.22).  Then, we must put on clean clothes.  Only those who “have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Re 7.14) are joined to God’s people and fit to enter his Presence.

Jeremy Nettles

What is Christian Nationalism?

Sunday, August 28, 2022

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people… (1 Peter 2.9-10)

You’ve probably seen or heard the term, Christian nationalism, and with increasing frequency.  What is it?  Is it an acceptable ideology before God?  Most of the time, when Christian nationalism is brought up in the public square, it’s for the purpose of demonizing the ideology and its adherents, and there are legitimate concerns.  But they’re concerning  because of God’s instructions, not some public figure’s opinion. 

Broadly speaking, nationalism is the notion that the leaders of each nation-state should put that nation’s own interests first in its governance.  This is distinguished from globalism, the idea that rulers’ responsibility is to the whole world, even at the expense of their own citizens.  How, then, does “Christian” modify “nationalism”?  The idea espoused by Christian nationalists in the United States is that this was founded as an explicitly Christian nation, should remain so, and that Christianity should be politically privileged over other religions.  Inasmuch as Christianity is the true religion and every person on earth ought to hear and obey the gospel, that doesn’t sound so bad; but as noted above, there are problems to consider.

Some blur the line between Christ and the state, effectively making an idol out of the latter.  This appears in a variety of ways, but is most easily observed in the tendency to make a political leader into an imitation of the Messiah, with the reasoning that, just as soon as so-and-so gets all the power, all of our problems will be solved.  But Jesus said, “the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me” (Jn 12.8).  God’s kingdom is heavenly, and so is his salvation.  This is both foolishness and idolatry.

Another problem occurs when Christians treat their faith as nothing but a justification for their political beliefs.  Our faith should determine our position on political issues, of course, but if you’ve never altered your stance on a political question based on what the Bible says, and instead have only used it to find justifications for your prior convictions, you’re doing it backward!

Then there’s the problem of reading God’s promises to Israel, and determining that modern America has replaced Israel as God’s chosen people, as if the passage in 1 Peter 2, quoted above, were aimed directly at America.  This is absurd.  It’s the same nonsense preached by the Black Hebrew Israelites (who claim they’re the true descendants of Abraham), and by the somehow even more ridiculous White British Israelites (who don’t call themselves that, but they’re definitely out there—in more ways than one!).  God’s people are those who are faithful—“Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham” (Ga 3.7).

But despite these legitimate concerns, that’s not what those in politics and the media have in mind, when deriding Christian nationalism.  They’re primarily concerned with things like getting rid of Christian words and symbols from the public sphere, and doing away with Christian morality in laws.  In the case of religious art or teaching in public, what’s the alternative?  Man is inherently religious.  Remove religious symbols from public, and they will soon be replaced by others, perhaps of a false religion, or even more likely, by the symbols and teaching of the secular establishment, which is its own religion.  What about the influence of Christian morality in the law?  The alternative here is simply injustice.  You can’t be a Christian, and believe that anyone other than God should be the final word on justice and morality.

Note that the term, Christian nationalist, deliberately evokes the similar-sounding but wildly different white nationalist.  It’s possible to find avowed white supremacists who speak in support of Christian nationalism, but true Christianity demands we recognize the God-given worth of every person, regardless of race.  Christ’s kingdom has, from the very beginning, cared not a whit about skin color or national origin—the first Christians came from a group of

Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians… (Acts 2.9-11)

Christian nationalism is mostly invoked to suggest that you’re a bigot, if you profess to be a Christian and believe that Christians have a duty to “make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28.19).  This is done in order to pressure Christians to stop acting on their faith in public—in effect, to stop being Christians.  Don’t take the bait.

For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ…(Philippians 3.18-20)

You’ll find the people of whom Paul warns, at both of the extreme ends of this argument—on one side, using Christ’s kingdom as a club to enforce their earthly will, and on the other side, the same thing, dressed up differently.  But while we’re bound to be born into some kind of political structure and citizenship, our real citizenship, the one that matters, is in heaven.  Live accordingly.

Jeremy Nettles

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