Monday, November 23, 2009

Four of the Twelve - Obadiah and a question of kingdoms

Perspective, for people like us, has limitations. We live within the confines of time and space. God, the creator of time and space, lives in eternity. Eternity isn't a never-ending sequence of moments, though. God exists outside of time and space. So, we can assume He sees all the points of human history, forwards and backwards, all at once.

Have you got all that? Read it again if you need to. It's important.

I want to make sure we keep this idea of eternity in mind as we study Obadiah. It's a short book. One chapter where God lowers the doom on Edom. At first glace, it sounds like the kind of thing one of the major prophets would have said as an afterthought. I suppose that's why so many Christians overlook Obadiah, or read him simply because his book falls on a certain date in the Bible-in-a-year calendar. But if all scripture is inspired by God and profitable, then why put it in there at all?

To understand the words of Obadiah, let's go back to the birth of Jacob and Esau in Genesis. In chapter 25, Rebekah becomes pregnant with twins. "The children fought with each other inside her so much that she said, 'If it's going to be like this, why go on living?' So she went to inquire of the Lord, who answered her, 'There are two nations in your womb. From birth they will be two rival peoples. One of these peoples will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger" (Gen. 25:22-23). Esau is born first, Jacob (later named Israel) comes second. The first story told of the brothers' relationship explains how Esau sold his rights as the oldest son to Jacob for a red-lentil stew. The word "Edom" means "red" in Hebrew and was given to Esau, apparently as a reminder of "how little he valued his birthright."

In chapter 27, we read of how Rebekah and Jacob trick the now-blind Isaac into giving his blessing to Jacob instead of Esau. Isaac blesses Jacob, saying, "may God give you dew from heaven, the richness of the earth, and grain and wine in abundance. May peoples serve you and nations bow down to you. May you be lord over your kinsmen, let your mother's descendants bow down to you. Cursed be everyone who curses you, and blessed be everyone who blesses you!" Jacob slips out of Isaac's tent just before Esau enters to find the blessing already gone. He weeps and begs his father to give him a blessing as well. Isaac says to Esau, "Here! Your home will be of the richness of the earth and of the dew of heaven from above. You will live by your sword, and you will serve your brother. But when you break loose, you will shake his yoke off of your neck."

In time, Jacob and Esau have children who birth generations becoming the nations of Israel and Edom. At the time of Obadiah's prophecy against Edom, it might have made the people wonder why Edom wasn't serving Israel as predicted in Genesis. Obadiah 11-14 tells of wrongs Edom committed toward Israel in the past. Standing by passively as other nations came in to conquer and destroy. Rejoicing over their disaster. Taking advantage of the calamity and looting Jerusalem. Killing those fleeing the invaders. I can see some wise man explaining how Edom broke loose and shook off the yoke.

But Obadiah's prophecy is forward-looking. God has more in mind for the nation of Esau. The second half of Obadiah tells of how God will bring judgment to Edom and restore Israel as the ruling nation. When God made these new promises, one had a choice to trust God's reputation or the pain of surrounding circumstances.

For those who believe in Jesus, we can see how God fulfilled his promises in the coming Messiah. Even though Jesus fulfilled the messianic prophecies, there are some prophecies He has yet to fulfill. For example, the prophecies of Jesus coming to judge the living and the dead? That hasn't happened yet. What about His return to earth to rule and reign as King. Obadiah points to this day when God reestablishes Israel in verse 21, "Then the victorious will ascend Mount Zion to rule over Mount Esau, but the kingship will belong to the Lord."

See? Perspective is important. We can have a few reactions to God's promises. One response shows pride when we trust in our understanding of God's promises more than the One who made the promise. This might foster an attitude of unbelief. Another response recognizes the eternal God instead of the temporal circumstance. When God tells of what's to come, we can have patience as He leads us toward the promise.

In the end, Obadiah's prophecy had little to do with the struggle between the Kingdom of Edom and the Kingdom of Israel. Instead, Obadiah proclaimed the eternal Kingdom of God.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Three of the Twelve - How God used a working man to dismantle the myth of bad things happening to good people.

I have always loved Amos as a character. Most prophets were recognized by the people and quite often had access to royalty. These prophets carried the title of Prophet, sometimes belonging to a small band, or guild, of prophets. In the first verse of the book of Amos, the text lays out a beginning unlike any other in the Bible. God gave prophetic words to a shepherd and farmer from Judah. Amos the shepherd then went to Israel, the northern kingdom, and began to prophesy. The name of my weblog sings of this idea. God uses the ordinary and unlearned to speak truth.

Amos 7:10-15 gives a good example of how the rulers in Israel felt about this blue-collar prophet. "Then Amaziah the priest of Bethel sent this message to Jeroboam king of Israel, 'Amos is conspiring against you there among the people of Israel, and the land can't bear all that he's saying. For Amos says: "Jeroboam will die by the sword, and Israel will be led away from their land into exile".' Amaziah also said to Amos, 'Go away, seer! Go back to the land of Judah! Earn your living there; but don't prophesy any more at Bethel; for this is the king's sanctuary, a royal temple.' Amos gave this answer to Amaziah: 'I am not trained as a prophet, and I'm not one of the guild prophets - I own sheep and grow figs. But the Lord took me away from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, "Go, prophesy to my people Israel."'"

I like to imagine Amos as the classic John the Baptist looking-dude. Wild hair, hard features, uncommon clothes. It's fun to think of that kind of man walking around the streets of foreign cities talking about their coming destruction. But in actuality, Amos probably looked like an ordinary guy. It's more like a gas station attendant walking around the mall telling people of God's word. Not so romantic an image, but unusual all the same.

God likes to do this. He likes to take unexpected people and use them in unexpected places. I think this is why Jesus answered his critics in Luke 4:25-27, "But I say to you in truth, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the sky was shut up for three years and six months, when a great famine came over all the land; and yet Elijah was sent to none of them, but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet; and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian." And just like Amaziah in Amos 7, Luke 4:28 says, "And all the people in the synagogue were filled with rage as they heard these things."

But what was it that Amos said that so offended the king and high priest? A lot of things, probably. Here's one. Consider the possibility that God does allow "bad" things to happen to "good" people. Consider even the possibility that God does these "bad" things Himself. In Amos 1, God tells of coming punishment for several cities and nations because of their crimes. These crimes include horrors like cruelty in war, exile, and ripping open pregnant women. I can see it now, the Israelites hearing this prophecy and enjoying numb feelings of self-righteousness. Then in Chapter 2, Amos says, "For Judah's three crimes, no, four - I will not reverse it - because they rejected the Law of the Lord..." And later, "For Israel's three crimes..." Suddenly those self-righteous feelings turn cold. Israel has been indicted alongside their neighbors, their enemies. God was against them all. Sure, Israel and Judah didn't spill pregnant ladies' guts, but their sins were equally deserving of God's wrath. They didn't follow His commands. They took advantage of the poor for business opportunities. They gave in to sexual deviancy.

The past few conversations I've had with unbelievers about God usually start with, "If God were good, why would He let bad stuff happen to good people?" In the Old Testament, who was better than the people of Israel and Judah? They were God's chosen people, set apart from the other nations, enjoying His blessings. But Amos calls them out on their wickedness. The fact is, we've all committed the "three, no, four crimes." Our sin deserves the punishment of death that God promised Adam in Genesis 2. If this is true, and we all demonstrate the wickedness of our hearts to some degree, why doesn't the truly good, righteous, and holy God kill us on the spot? Why do any of us still have the ability to live and breathe?

Amos knows of Israel's sin. He talks about it at length before a series of visions in the beginning of chapter 7. God shows Amos His plan to punish His people. Amos pleads, "Lord God, forgive - please! How will tiny Jacob survive?" Twice, God promises to stay His hand and show mercy. Eventually, though, God tells the prophet how He will soon refuse to overlook Israel's offenses. For the time being, God demonstrates what theologians call "Common Grace". Even for those who God knows will not come to repentance and saving faith, He still blesses both by providing good things and withholding bad things from them. This is much harder for me to understand: God gives good things to bad people. But as we see in Amos, it won't last. Paul says of those who will remain unrepentant in Romans 2:5, "But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God".

Yet for all this, God promises in Amos 9:8-11, "'Look, the eyes of the Lord God are on the sinful kingdom. I will wipe it off the face of the earth, yet I will not completely destroy the house of Jacob,' says the Lord. 'For when I give the order, I will shake the house of Israel, there among all the nations, as one shakes with a sieve, letting no grain fall to the ground. All the sinners among my people who say, "disaster will never overtake us or confront us," will die by the sword. When that day comes, I will raise up the fallen tabernacle of David. I will close up its gaps, raise up its ruins and rebuild it as it used to be.'"

Amos tells of a day when God will restore the house of David to its kingship, which we now see in Jesus as Messiah, the King who will come again to rule the earth. Jesus will shake the sieve of humanity separating the wheat from the chaff (Matthew 3:12). In Christ's kingdom, God will reestablish the people of Israel.

Common grace is all well and good, but it doesn't necessarily mean we have saving faith. God is good to everyone, but only those who put their trust in Jesus will stay in the sieve, so to speak. I know, in my heart, I have committed those three, no, four crimes. And I am so grateful to Jesus for paying the penalty for my crimes. I know that His grace, for me, is more than a mere demonstration of His goodness before the coming wrath. It's a taste of the joy I will one day experience when I am fully in His presence, secure, no more to be uprooted.