God Breaks Out of the Box in the Book of Matthew

I won’t complete this Bible school until the end of June of 2014, but the transition we just recently made from studying the Old Testament for six months into now studying the New Testament has already made this school, for me, one of the greatest blessings of my life. Without even realizing it, I had become attached to God’s people as I have literally been walking with them through their history with God as their Father, King, Provider, Protector, Judge,etc. Experiencing the remarkable transition into the time of Jesus is indescribable, and I highly recommend everyone to strongly consider and pray about doing a Chronological School of Biblical Studies with YWAM; it will change your life in beautiful ways.

Studying the Book of Matthew took so much discipline because each chapter was so rich in Jesus’ teaching – more so than any other book I’ve studied so far. I wanted to sit and meditate on every single passage, but the time constraint just doesn’t allow for it. Personally, it has been more important for me to get the big picture of each book, knowing that later, if I can get into the habit of regular study outside of this school, I will have to time to dig deeper having no deadline.

The time between the last recorded prophet in the Bible (Malachi) and the time of Jesus is often called the “Four Hundred Years of Silence,” as there are no biblical book written in this time frame (although the Apocrypha literature accepted by the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches do cover some of this time period).

During these years of silence, the Jews were not a sovereign nation like they were in the days of the kings. There were, as a result, vulnerable to the

Enjoying some down time at Venice Beach

Enjoying some down time at Venice Beachconquering kings and cultures, most notably Alexander the Great who conquered the Persian Empire in about 334 BC. The Greek Empire, with great success, “Hellenized” the nations they conquered (meaning they imposed the Greek culture on the peoples the conquered), and the Jews were put in a position to decide which parts of the Greek culture they accepted and which parts they kept separate from as God’s holy people.

In about 167 BC, Antiochus Epiphanies IV, the Syrian king who rose to power at the end of the Seleucid Empire, tried to recoup from a loss he suffered to Rome in the Battle of Magnesia in 190 BC.

Antiochus, in attempts to suppress the Jews and extract taxes ordered them to end their Jewish worship and instead worship the Greek god Zeus. This was when a group of Jews led a revolt against Antiochus’ Hellenization policies. As a result of this successful revolution led by Mattathatis Hasmon (later led by Judas Maccabee), national patriotism among the Jews significantly increased and became the dominant mindset among the people. This is also where the Jewish holiday Hanukkah comes from, when Judas Maccabees successfully drove out the Syrians from the temple and rededicated and cleansed the temple in 164 BC.

It was during these four hundred years of silence that the Pharisees rose to influence, as well. Although their history and origin is a bit obscure, it does seem like this sect of Jews (who weren’t priests) arose out of a desire to remain pure from the Greek and Roman influences. When Judas Maccabees cleansed the temple after his victory against Antiochus (who had defiled the temple by entering it), it is likely that he became the High Priest of the nation, despite the law’s command that only a man from the Zadok line could be High Priest. As Judas Maccabees and other leaders started to increase in faithlessness to the law , the Pharisees arose. In their religious zeal, they were determined to oppose those who did not keep the law. They themselves desired to keep themselves separate from outside cultures with a sincere interest in following the law.

I loved learning this history because it gave me a new empathy for the Pharisees. This desire to be a sovereign nation under God, (compounded by the national patriotism that arose after the Maccabean revolt) plus their desire to strictly adhere to the law all contributed to the reason why the Pharisees were so opposed to Jesus. Jesus didn’t make them a sovereign nation, He didn’t get rid of Rome, and His focus seemed to be on the heart rather than the law (although He obviously still upheld the law and fulfilled it).

So Jesus wasn’t the triumphant king the Pharisees were looking for. And Phariseesmany of the prophecies given in the Scriptures would have been hard for the Pharisees in the day to confirm Jesus as Messiah, even though it may be easier for us to see today:

But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,

    who are one of the little clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
    one who is to rule in Israel,
whose origin is from of old,
    from ancient days.

Micah 5:2 (cf. Matthew 2:6)

 

Thus says the Lord:
A voice is heard in Ramah,
    lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
    she refuses to be comforted for her children,
    because they are no more.

Jeremiah 31:15 (cf. Matthew 2:18)

 

I then said to them, “If it seems right to you, give me my wages; but if not, keep them.” So they weighed out as my wages thirty shekels of silver.

Zechariah 11:12,13 (cf. Matthew 27:9)

 

You have set your glory above the heavens.
    Out of the mouths of babes and infants
you have founded a bulwark because of your foes,
    to silence the enemy and the avenger.

Psalm 8:2 (cf. Matthew 21:16)

And yet, despite the confusion the Scriptures might have caused, many others did believe, simply by Jesus’ teaching and miracles:

Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.

Matthew 21:31,32

Unfortunately, the Pharisees’ pride in their knowledge became their stumbling block. It was as if the law had become their god instead of Yahweh Himself. Granted, it came for good reason: they wanted to be sure they stayed pure among the pagan cultures. But they had come to trust more in their own understanding than God. Had they humbled themselves, risking the possibility that they might be wrong, then they would have understood that God was after the purity of their hearts rather than their outward obedience to the law. But they didn’t humble themselves, which is why it was foretold in Isaiah:

‘You will indeed listen, but never understand,
    and you will indeed look, but never perceive.
 For this people’s heart has grown dull,
    and their ears are hard of hearing,
        and they have shut their eyes;
        so that they might not look with their eyes,
    and listen with their ears,
and understand with their heart and turn—
    and I would heal them.’

Matthew 13:15 (cf. Isaiah 6:9)

As believers, we too have access to wisdom into really tough questions, but our hearts have to be willing to submit all of our questions and prejudices to God to make sure we don’t miss out on the truth. We have to be okay with being wrong – a lot. Even in “lesser” circumstances, such as assuming another’s heart motives or intentions, these assumptions must be submitted to God, or else you might form incorrect opinions about other people that negatively affect your relationships.

God is so beyond any of our own mental capacities. I believe the Messianic prophecies were obscure for that reason – He’s just a big God that works and

creates and speaks things beyond the boxes we put Him in. He doesn’t want to confuse us though, but rather give insight for those who humbly ask and have faith that He really does respond.

A Life Devoted: Nehemiah & Malachi

Nehemiah was a pretty cool guy, and some actually call him a type of Christ. He was a fervent leader who had a big heart for his people (the Jews) and for God. He led fearlessly and efficiently and in a calm and collected manner in spite of fear. He was patient and gracious toward the people he led, though they tended to be counterproductive.  

He was probably born and raised in the courts of King Artaxerxes of Persia in the fifth century BC. He was the cupbearer to the king, which was a privileged position back then, and meant that he must have earned the respect of the people he served. When news reached him that his people were in distress and in disgrace, the year was around 445 BC, and Nehemiah was distraught.

When I heard these words I sat down and wept, and mourned for days, fasting and praying before the God of heaven.

Nehemiah 1:4

 

But Nehemiah waited on God even though he was distressed. He didn’t take things into his own hands, but continued praying and seeking God. In fact, the news was brought to him in “the month of Chislev” (which is November/December) and did absolutely nothing except pray and mourn and fast until the month of Nisan of the following year (March/April).

One of the characteristics of Nehemiah that I liked so much was his opposition to fear. Fear is our greatest enemy and lies to us to keep us from doing the will of God. But Nehemiah handled fear so well throughout his life. When the king first called him out on his sadness in the month of Nisan after the terrible news had reached him, Nehemiah was overcome with fear, perhaps because he was afraid of how the King of Persia would react:

So the king said to me, “Why is your face sad, since you are not sick? This can only be sadness of the heart.” Then I was very much afraid.

Nehemiah 2:2

But despite his fear, he was honest and open to the king about everything he had been sad about. As a result, the king granted Nehemiah permission to go home and rebuild! This was the king’s trusted cupbearer and probably someone that would be hard to just let go! Had Nehemiah given in to fear and not have confessed, his purpose would have been left unfulfilled. 

I said to the king, “May the king live forever! Why should my face not be sad, when the city, the place of my ancestors’ graves, lies waste, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?”

 

Then the king said to me, “What do you request?” So I prayed to the God of heaven.

 

Then I said to the king, “If it pleases the king, and if your servant has found favor with you, I ask that you send me to Judah, to the city of my ancestors’ graves, so that I may rebuild it.”

 

The king said to me (the queen also was sitting beside him), “How long will you be gone, and when will you return?” So it pleased the king to send me, and I set him a date. 

Nehemiah 2:3-6

Nehemiah also faced a ton of opposition and intimidation rebuilding the wall in Jerusalem. Even the people he led were stricken into a panic. But Nehemiah kept calm throughout the opposition, recognizing the enemy’s voice for what it was. He implemented a strategy that would keep them safe, encouraged the people, and returned to work, as if the army of those who wanted to murder him and his people didn’t phase him:

And our enemies said, “They will not know or see anything before we come upon them and kill them and stop the work.”

 

When the Jews who lived near them came, they said to us ten times, “From all the places where they live they will come up against us.” So in the lowest parts of the space behind the wall, in open places, I stationed the people according to their families, with their swords, their spears, and their bows.

 

After I looked these things over, I stood up and said to the nobles and the officials and the rest of the people, “Do not be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your kin, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your homes.”

 

When our enemies heard that their plot was known to us, and that God had frustrated it, we all returned to the wall, each to his work.

Nehemiah 4:11-15

I love this about Nehemiah! He just didn’t give into the big voice of fear that spoke to him. He was convinced it was God’s will to rebuild, and anything that opposed that he considered his enemy and something not to give in to. He always kept God in the equation, prayed for His help, and then moved forward toward the goal. 

There are SO many great characteristics of Nehemiah I could talk about! It’s an excellent book to study if you want a great example of godly leadership. The only other characteristic of Nehemiah I’ll mention was his graciousness and patience toward His people. 

After Nehemiah completed and dedicated the wall, the people were on fire for God and wanted to wholeheartedly obey Him. They renewed the covenant with God and vowed to keep separate from the foreign nations so as to keep holy and clean as God’s people:

The rest of the people, the priests, the Levites…and all who have separated themselves from the peoples of the lands to adhere to the law of God…enter into a curse and an oath to walk in God’s law, which was given by Moses the servant of God, and to observe and do all the commandments of the Lord…

Nehemiah 10:28,29

But as soon as Nehemiah left to return to the King of Persia, the people lost their original fervency and started backsliding.

After sometime, Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem and found that the people were not continuing in the reforms they had made. Eliashib the priest made a room for their enemy, Tobiah, who had opposed the rebuilding of the wall,  in the temple of God! The people had stopped tithing so that the priests had to work in the fields for money (when they were supposed to be teaching the law), they were violating the sabbath, and they continued to marry foreign women. 

You can imagine how angry Nehemiah probably was with the people:

And I contended with them and cursed them and beat some of them and pulled out their hair; and I made them take an oath in the name of God, saying, “You shall not give your daughters to their sons…”

Nehemiah 13:25

But Nehemiah didn’t lose all patience and just give up on them and return to Persia. He rebuked them but stood by them and helped them get back to where they were. 

Thus I cleansed them from everything foreign, and I established the duties of the priests and Levites, each in his work; and I provided for the wood offering, at appointed times, and for the first fruits.

Nehemiah 13:30

It is such a beautiful picture of the graciousness that God shows His followers today. He is slow to anger, and though we are rebuked and corrected, it is usually with great gentleness, as He’s not quick to grow weary. He is so zealous for us that He continues to give us strength and opportunities to obey Him. This is the picture of a good shepherd! 

After Nehemiah, we studied the Book of Malachi, the last recorded prophetic activity before Jesus came! Malachi probably ministered some time after Nehemiah and Ezra’s ministry in the fifth century BC. Malachi dealt with similar but different problems than Nehemiah had after the Jews had returned from captivity.

Malachi was probably one of my favorite prophetic books because it basically shows how man is unable to love God the way He ought to be without His help.

The priests, who were supposed to represent God’s holiness, teach the people the law, and lead the people into sincere worship, had turned corrupt. They themselves had stopped fearing God and thus were disqualified from the priesthood:

When you offer blind animals in sacrifice, is that not wrong? And when you offer those that are lame or sick, is that not wrong? Try presenting that to your governor; will he be pleased with you or show you favor?

Malachi 1:8

 

…you have turned aside from the way; you have caused many to stumble by your instruction; you have corrupted the covenant of Levi…

Malachi 2:8

 

The priests had neglected their sole purpose and as a result lost favor with God. And God told them that in the end, all nations would worship Him, with or without their help:

I have no pleasure in you, says the Lord of hosts…For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name is great among the nations…

Malachi 1:11

 

Cursed be the cheat who has a male in the flock and vows to give it, and yet sacrifices to the Lord what is blemished; for I am a great King, says the Lord of hosts, and my name is reverenced among the nations.

Malachi 1:14

It’s not that God wanted the people to suffer in their sacrifices, but He wanted them to trust Him completely for their sustenance, not in their own wealth and alliances with man. The sacrifices were to point toward His worth, but they were “offering polluted food” that did not reflect the worth due to Him.

The bottom line was that the priests were unable to fear God the way God wanted all of mankind to fear Him. 

But really, no matter who was in the position of the priest, no man apart from the help of His spirit would ever be able to meet His standards. The entire story of the Old Testament pretty much proves that. 

Just listen to what God required of the priests, and ultimately, mankind:

My covenant with him was a covenant of life and well-being, which I gave him; this called for reverence, and he revered me and stood in awe of my name. True instruction was in his mouth, and no wrong was found on his lips. He walked with me in integrity and uprightness, and he turned many from iniquity. For the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and people should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts.

Malachi 2:5-7

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Done with Malachi, on to the New Testament!

He was supposed to fear God, teach truth, never be wrong, turn people away from their sin, and walk in complete integrity. I mean who can seriously do that apart from God!? Even when Christians do receive His Spirit, our hearts don’t look that way, at least not for the majority of our lives.

But that’s what makes Jesus so amazing. Instead of giving us wrath, He decided to send His son, who was the perfect fulfillment of the priesthood that God required for the cleansing of His people. 

Studying the Old Testament has given me such a greater understanding of why Jesus was needed. Before it seemed a little bit weird and mystical, but everything makes so much more sense in light of the history of God’s people. I’m more in awe of what God did, and what He could have done but chose to do instead. 

I’ll never forget the quote from the prophet Zechariah, which might be one of my favorite passages from the prophetic books:

But now I will not deal with the remnant of this people as in the former days, says the Lord of hosts…Just as you have been a cursing among the nations, O house of Judah and house of Israel, so I will save you and you shall be a blessing…Just as I purposed to bring disaster upon you, when your ancestors provoked me to wrath…so again I have purposed in these days to do good to Jerusalem…

Zechariah 8:11,13,14-15

 

The entire nation was supposed to be a blessing to the other nations; that was their only purpose, and it began with the priests. This is why Malachi came down on them so harshly, because they were leading people away from fulfilling their purpose and pleasing to God.

I learned from Malachi that the only way to live the best life is to serve God. Before this school, I never really had God’s heart for justice, mercy, generosity, discipleship, etc. I knew these were good things, but I still wasn’t fully committed to these. 

But now my purpose has been shifting around loving the things God loves, like justice, mercy, and worship. I know I don’t have to be perfect or have a “missionary-like” vocation, but it does require devotion to Him, no matter what season and job God calls me to.

After reading the story of God’s people in the Old Testament, I just came to this conviction that in the end, it’s all about God and His heart for this world, so why would I want to do my own thing? I want to be a part of His ultimate goal for this world because that’s truly what matters the most. I don’t want to miss the purpose of my life like the priests had from the Old Testament. I know that it sounds elementary, but this conviction has steered my heart more on course with what God has in mind for me. What exactly that looks like, whether I return to the corporate world or stay in YWAM, I just have to take it step by step, with God at my side. 

 

Haggai & Zechariah

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Hiking at sunset

The ministry of Haggai takes place during the time of Zerubbabel (a descendant in David’s line) who led the first wave of exiles home upon King Cyrus’ decree to release God’s people from captivity to build the temple.

As mentioned in the story of Ezra, Zerubbabel and the people faced some opposition in building the temple, and as a result, the people stopped working on it after they had laid the initial foundation in around 536 BC.

Over time, the people translated this setback as a reason to begin focusing on their own lives and put the temple on the back burner.

So God then raised up Haggai the prophet to begin prophesying to the Jews in the second year of King Darius of Persia (520 BC):

Is it a time for you yourselves to live in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins?

Haggai 1:4

Because God’s people had neglected proper worship (which required the temple), the people were still experiencing the covenant curses that God said would happen if they didn’t obey Him:

You have looked for much, and, lo, it came to little; and when you brought it home, I blew it away. Why? says the Lord of hosts. Because my house lies in ruins, while all of you hurry off to your own houses. Therefore the heavens above you have withheld the dew, and the earth has withheld its produce.

Haggai 1:9,10

The Jews should have known that these curses were a result of disobeying God, as they were well aware of them from the law given in Deuteronomy:

But if you will not obey the Lord your God by diligently observing all his commandments and decrees…The sky over your head shall be bronze, and the earth under you iron. The Lord will change the rain of your land into powder, and only dust shall come down upon you from the sky until you are destroyed.

Deuteronomy 28:15,23-24

So even though the Jews thought they were comfortable in life, if they actually got real with themselves, they’d realize they weren’t actually living the kind of life that God wanted for them:

Now therefore thus says the Lord of hosts: Consider how you have fared.

Haggai 1:5

I love how Haggai asked the people to consider their lives! It’s God’s gentle  encouragement to let go of what they thought would give them a good life and instead follow what God told them to do. He didn’t require perfection, but just wanted them to set their hearts on making Him a priority in their lives. Then they would see the promises of God come through for them.

But even when the Jews did repent and obey, they didn’t feel like they had accomplished much and seemed discouraged in their efforts. So God encouraged them by promising even more blessings if they continued in perseverance:

Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing? Yet now take courage…all you people of the land, says the Lord; work, for I am with you, says the Lord of hosts, according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt. My spirit abides among you; do not fear…The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts; and in this place I will give prosperity, says the Lord of hosts.

Haggai 2:3-9

Sometimes obedience seems like it is achieving nothing and the feeling of being stuck persists. But there are always promises Imageon the other side if we don’t give up and keep trusting in God for everything!

The prophet Zechariah was also prophesying during the time of Haggai. He called them to repent and follow after God and to listen to the prophets.

Zechariah is one of the most Messianic prophecies. To me, it really was like reading a fifth gospel. He first showed them that the law was against those who transgressed it (everyone):

Again I looked up and saw a flying scroll…This is the curse that goes out over the face of the whole land; for everyone who steals shall be cut off according to the writing on one side, and everyone who swears falsely shall be cut off according to the writing on the other side…

Zechariah 5:1,3

They made their hearts adamant in order not to hear the law and the words that the Lord of hosts had sent by his spirit through the former prophets. Therefore great wrath came from the Lord of hosts.

Zechariah 7:12

He then pointed out their need for a holy priest to cleanse the people of sin. Zechariah saw a vision of Satan accusing Joshua, the High Priest at the time, for his uncleanness. But God rebukes Satan and puts clean garments on Joshua as a prophetic promise:

Then he showed me the high priest Joshua standing before the angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him…Now Joshua was dressed with filthy clothes…

Zechariah 3:1,3

“Take off his filthy clothes…See, I have taken your guilty away from you, and I will cloth you with festal apparel.”

Zechariah 3:4

How beautiful is this vision! God made us clean through His Son, and now Satan can no longer accuse us of sin! Praise Jesus. 

He then shared how He was going to deal with sin, which to me, was the most beautiful of passages. Before, He had dealt with sin through His wrath when He sent His people into exile. Now, He was promising good:

For thus says the Lord of hosts: Just as I purposed to bring disaster upon you, when your ancestors provoked me to wrath, and I did not relent, says the Lord of hosts, so again I have purposed in these days to do good to Jerusalem…Speak the truth to one another, render in your gates judgments that are true and make for  peace, do not devise evil in your hearts against one another, and love no false oath, for all these are things that I hate…

Zechariah 8:14-17

The Jews should have been thrilled with this promise, that God, once and for all, was going to deal with  sin that they themselves couldn’t overcome. They were finally going to love truth, justice, and peace, as God had always purposed for them. 

Another recurring theme throughout Zechariah’s promises was the idea that other nations would partake in the blessing. 

The Jews were commanded to be a blessing to the other nations when God gave His promise to Abraham, the father of their nation:

I will make of you a great nation, and I will blessed you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.

Genesis 12:2

God was now promising them that they would do what they always were supposed to do but couldn’t do because of their weakness: 

Just as you have been a cursing among the nations…so I will save you and you shall be a blessing. 

Zechariah 8:13

None of us, including the Jews, are able to fulfill our ultimate purpose in life without the help of God!

If there’s one thing that I’ve learned from studying the Old Testament from start to finish is that God’s ultimate purpose on this earth is for all to worship Him. I’ve seen so much more of His heart to bless and love on all people, no matter what their sin. This really has helped me gain an even bigger heart for the nations:

Thus says the Lord of hosts: Peoples shall yet come, the inhabitants of many cities; the inhabitants of one city shall go to another, saying, “Come, let us go to entreat the favor of the Lord, and to seek the Lord of hosts; I myself am going. Many peoples and strong nations shall come to seek the Lord of hosts in Jerusalem, and to entreat the favor of the Lord…”

Zechariah 9:20-22

these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.

Isaiah 56:7