Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Inadvertent Agents of Blessing

A little over 600 years prior to sending his Son into the world, God began to make obvious preparations for his next step in reconciling a fallen world to himself through Jesus Christ.

These weren’t God’s first steps in his program of salvation, of course, and for the most part they were not seen as movements forward at all by those who played a part in them, but they are obvious to us in hindsight, looking back over the centuries.

After all, how would the gospel have spread so effectively throughout Europe and Asia in the first century if there had been no Judean Captivity?

All the Nations of the Earth

Thousands of years ago, long before there was an Israelite nation and long before the Law of Moses had ever been given, God told Abraham “in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed.” This line rings true on multiple levels, but my interest here is primarily the promise’s implications for Abraham’s physical offspring through Isaac, the nation of Israel, and particularly a subset of that nation most commonly referred to today as “the Jews”.

Six hundred years before Christ, like the ten tribes of Israel, the nation of Judah was a disaster. Its people had sinned against its God and against each other in so many ways we can hardly enumerate them. In his commentary on Ezekiel, R.E. Harlow lists a few of Judah’s viler transgressions of God’s law, including the ritual murder of children, the worship of idols, violence and bloodshed, rampant adultery, and so on. Judah had eagerly chosen the futile and evil ways of the pagans around them rather than the law of God and the blessings that came with obedience to it. The nation was debased in every way: intellectually deluded, morally depraved, spiritually blind and politically corrupt. God’s promise to Abraham to bless the nations of the world through his seed had never looked so unlikely. His program of salvation had never seemed more off-track.

All was proceeding just as planned.

Ten Times Better

So, as God had promised, Jerusalem was surrounded and eventually overwhelmed by the Chaldean army, its temple entirely destroyed. The significance of that move should not be overlooked.

A few years prior, Daniel and three of his friends had been taken, along with Jehoiakim king of Judah and some of the vessels of the house of God, to the land of Shinar and the province of Babylon. It reads like almost an afterthought: “The king commanded Ashpenaz, his chief eunuch, to bring some of the people of Israel …”

From the Babylonian perspective, perhaps it was an afterthought. From God’s perspective it was not. Not at all.

Within a mere three chapters of Daniel and less than a decade, four young captive nobles from Judah were highly positioned in one the greatest empires to ever dominate the world of its day. This was not just because of Daniel’s ability to interpret dreams, though that was surely the catalyst for his rise to power. But we are also told about all four young Jews that “in every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king inquired of them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters that were in all his kingdom.”

Blessing Times Two

So Daniel was appointed ruler over the whole province of Babylon and chief prefect over all the wise men. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego administered Babylonian affairs, and later received further promotion. Given their wisdom and their superiority compared to their peers, it is certain they distinguished themselves by governing well. Babylon Province had never had it so good. You might say the Babylonians were blessed … and by Abraham’s seed, no less.

Throughout the Captivity, this is how it went. Babylon fell to the Medo-Persians. Daniel and his friends eventually passed from the scene. Within the power structure of the Persian Empire, factions arose that were ill-disposed toward Jews to the point of plotting their genocide. The book of Esther tells how a nation facing certain extinction was rescued by the quiet plea of a devout woman. The story finishes with Mordecai the Jew second in rank only to King Ahasuerus throughout the Persian Empire. You may notice a recurring theme there.

Judah and Israel had completely failed to be a blessing to the nations of the world, so God made it happen anyway. Repeatedly. And it was only a small taste of what was to come.

Fast Forwarding

Fast forward a few hundred years. The Medo-Persian Empire gave way to Greece, and eventually Greece to Rome. During this time, many Jews and Israelites had returned home to Iudaea, now a Roman province.

Many had not.

You see, when Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylonians destroyed Solomon’s temple, they severely undermined the centrality of temple worship to Judaism. We never read the word “synagogue” in the Old Testament. It isn’t there to read. To worship Jehovah somewhere other than the temple in Jerusalem, the “house of God”, was inconceivable to a devout Israelite … until the day it was no longer possible.

But the Babylonian captivity necessitated some Jewish creativity. Devout Jews needed somewhere to gather, and synagogues sprang up throughout the world “in every city” to accommodate that need. The favorable opinion, even fear, of the Jews that spread throughout Persia in the wake of the Haman fiasco no doubt contributed to the building of synagogues in a major way. Successful movements always attract hangers-on, and so we read that “many from the peoples of the country declared themselves Jews.”

Identifiable, But Dispersed

In time, of course, the temple was rebuilt in the reconstructed Jerusalem, but its influence on God’s people was never quite the same. They were an identifiable ethnic family with a national home, assuming they wished to live in it, but in large part comfortably dispersed throughout the world much as they are today, taking their spiritual, intellectual and patriotic sustenance from whatever local gathering of other devout Jews could be found for the most part, and making the journey to worship at the temple in Jerusalem only on rare occasions.

Pentecost was one of these major events. So in Acts 2 we find Parthian Jews and Medean Jews, Elamite Jews, Mesopotamian Jews, Cappadocian Jews, Jews from Pontus and Asia, from Phrygia and Pamphylia, from Egypt and Libya; ethnic Jews from north and south, all distinguished by Luke from the Gentile proselytes to Judaism that were among them. These had been dispersed for so long that their native languages were actually Gentile tongues.

From a heavenly perspective, God had taken a rebellious, sinful people, and in righteously punishing them for their sins, had discreetly but very efficiently spread both the Law of Moses and the writings of the Hebrew prophets throughout the entire known world, laying the foundation for what was to come next.

The Blessing of the Gospel

What came next was the apostle Paul. Yes, of course, God first sent his Son into the world. It was the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that provided the content for the message that was God’s great next move in blessing the nations. But more than anyone else in the first century, it was Paul who took that good news to the world, city by city, synagogue after synagogue, and then out into the Gentile population as Jews here, there and everywhere rejected the offer of salvation through repentance and faith in Christ.

But it was these outposts of Judaism — these synagogues — that focused attention on the Christian message and spread it like wildfire. If you doubt this, simply do a search for the word “synagogue” in the book of Acts. Where Jews accepted the good news, the churches grew. Where Jews rejected it, they often drew an entire city’s attention to the message Paul and his co-workers were preaching. And the churches grew.

Throughout history, Israelites have always been agents of God’s prophesied blessing to the world. This was never truer than when they tried not to be. The gospel went from Judean Jews to dispersed Jews … and then out into the world where it belonged, whether those Jews who heard believed it and benefited from it or not.

The Advancing Program of God

There’s a message for us in that. God is sovereign. Men can reject his word and his will, but they cannot thwart his program no matter how morally decrepit and completely off track they become, and no matter how comprehensively they fail to fill the role to which they have been called.

As for the church, Abraham’s spiritual “offspring”, God will bless the world through our obedience, or he will bless the world through our disobedience; judgment, after all, begins with the house of God. We can enjoy the privilege of witnessing to his grace and favor, or we can inadvertently provide evidence from our own lives that God is still as perfectly capable of judging sin today as he was in the seventh century B.C.

We cannot stop him. We cannot even slow him down.

Come to think of it, what sane person would want to try?


  1. Does it ever occur to to you how incongruous and messy this all sounds for a God? If it's really God most people can relate to him saying jump and you saying "how high." I think that's because that's how they envision how they would handle things if they were in his place. I think it is because we all do not comprehend the rammifications and have the total view of how an intelligent creation must be handled. To me, I have realized that the tricky part would not be handling the intellect but the emotions that truly make us human. So, an intelligence with feelings AND emotions AND intellect, that is the miracle beyond our understanding and capabilities. And that is what we should know God is as well.

  2. Does it ever occur to to you how incongruous and messy this all sounds for a God?

    Yes. Spectacularly messy. And yet, apparently, this is how he chose to do it. Sovereignty is what it is.