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All Saints Day: Revelation 7:2-17

John’s vision in Revelation 7:2-17 comes in the midst of judgments. The Lamb is breaking open each of the seven great seals which enclose the scroll He took in Revelation 5:6-8. While the breaking of the seals tend to symbolize various judgments and fearful things happening on the earth, there is a comfort in knowing that the Lamb is the one doing these things. Such things are not beyond His control. As God permitted Satan to afflict Job (Job 1:6-12; 2:1-6), so also His fearful judgments of sinners will accomplish exactly what He intends them to do (Isaiah 55:10-11). Therefore, just before the seventh seal is broken, John sees a vision of angels numbering the sons of Israel. The destroying angels are restrained for a time according to the will of God, apart from whom nothing can happen.

The numbering of the tribes itself is noteworthy for several reasons. First of all, unlike parallel numberings of Israel in passages like Numbers 1, the tribes are identical in size. Israel wandering in the wilderness had yet to come into their inheritance. Even within the promised land, they awaited a better country (Hebrews 11:13-16). Now, in this vision, Israel has come into her own. John sees in the people what Ezekiel had seen in the land: the portions are the same and God is in their midst (Ezekiel 48:1-29).

However, unlike in Ezekiel, the names of the tribes have changed. Notably absent are two tribes: Dan and Ephraim. Further, while Manasseh is present, Joseph also appears separately in the list, which was not typical for this list in the Old Testament. As far as Dan is concerned, this tribe was the first to fall into gross idolatry in the promised land (Judges 18), and Jeroboam set up one of his golden calves in that territory (1 Kings 12:28-30). Dan’s absence therefore seems to be an indirect way of describing Israel finally purged of the idolatry for which she suffered so much. As for Ephraim, the prophets frequently, but not exclusively, referred to this tribe as the tribe of Joseph (Zechariah 10:6 and Ezekiel 37:15-23, for example). This may also recall Israel’s blessing of the sons of Joseph and the preference shown to the younger Ephraim (Genesis 48).

Third, Israel is sealed prior to the vision of the great multitude later in the passage. This is not an incidental detail. As Paul says regarding Israel according to the flesh, “To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen” (Romans 9:5). Christ also says on several occasions that He “was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24). After all, God promised that the offspring of Abraham would be as numerous as the stars, and “in your offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 26:4). Through Israel, as the elder brother, the blessing of Christ would come to all nations.

Paul, of course, clarifies that belonging to Israel according to the flesh is not enough. “Without faith, it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews 11:6). But the Israelite who believes is a natural branch returning to his own tree. John sees Israel no longer hardened. “The Deliverer will come from Zion, he will banish ungodliness from Jacob” (Romans 11:26). Therefore, in that moment, the dividing wall of hostility has been broken down, and the two have become one (Ephesians 2:11-22). Israel and the nations have become one people, even as the honor shown to the believing and purified older brother persists to his glory for all time.

John also sees the great ingathering of the nations. They have entered into their Sabbath rest, resting from all turmoil and pain and worshiping God who has delivered them (Hebrews 4:9-10). Thus, the Sabbath finds its fulfillment in the great Sabbath. What we experience now in the midst of toil, work, and pain, often only one day in seven, shall become the totality. Even our imperfect liturgical forms will give way like shadows before the light in the fullness of that great Day. No longer will our hearts be burdened with distractions and worries! No longer will our lips only mouth words of praise! “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

One of the elders asks John a question which John does not know how to answer, much like Zechariah (Zechariah 4:1-14). This elder seeks to instruct John, and us through him, so that the vision may be clear. Revelation is not a sealed book, like many of the apocalyptic books in the Old Testament (Daniel 12:9-13). It is meant to comfort those who are in tribulation now, for by knowing “the things that must soon take place” (Revelation 1:1), those who hear this prophecy will not be caught unawares.

But the message is clear: here, in the midst of turmoil and tribulation, these saints now rest from their labors. The pains and sorrows of this world will soon come to an end. Purged of their sins, they will worship God in purity and sincerity. Free from their sorrows, they shall know a joy which knows no end. “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:3-4).

Those of us who still toil and labor can rejoice knowing that our Sabbath rest awaits us. But we can also take heart knowing that those who have departed in the faith now rest in Christ awaiting His glorious return. Then, as Israel and the nations have become one man in Christ, so we who are left until His coming will be caught up together with Him (1 Thessalonians 4:17). The Church will no longer be at war, but she will be His people, one holy Bride, resting blameless in His sight and alive in Him, never to die again.

Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity: 2 Chronicles 28:8-15

There is always a potential danger in choosing readings that too much will be left out. It is true that the one year lectionary historically did not include Old Testament readings, and therefore these choices were often made to fit the existing ones. Occasionally, this focus toward the New Testament leads to an unusual choice, especially when that selection is narrowed to keep the reading relatively short. 2 Chronicles 28:8-15, the Old Testament reading for the Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity, is a good example of this difficulty. It is plainly chosen to mirror the parable of the Good Samaritan, but the shortness of the reading leaves out many details which would show that the parallel between the two is not as strong as one might hope. This is, of course, a problem with the lectionary, not with the passage itself.

King Ahaz of the southern kingdom of Judah, the son of righteous Jotham, the grandson of righteous Uzziah, was deeply wicked. It was not enough for Ahaz to walk in the same path as Jeroboam, but he also copied the religious practices of the surrounding nations. He made metal images of the Baals and sacrificed in every high place and under every green tree. As if all of this were a light thing, he even burned his own children as a sacrifice “according to the abominations of the nations whom the Lord drove out before the people of Israel” (2 Chronicles 28:1-4; also 2 Kings 16:1-4). Godless Ahaz even had the audacity to pretend to piously refuse to put the Lord to the test, even when the Lord commanded him to do it through the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 7:10-12).

Meanwhile, Pekah, the king of Israel, who was coming toward the end of his reign (2 Kings 15:27; 16:1), was trying to regain some of his original power. Tiglath-pileser, the king of Assyria, captured part of the northern territory of Israel in Pekah’s reign and carried off Naphtali (2 Kings 15:28). Pekah therefore sought an alliance with Syria, who were located to the northeast, as a way of pushing back against Assyrian encroachment as well as regaining some of that territory. It is this alliance that caused Ahaz to be afraid (Isaiah 7:1-2), because he felt that he could not withstand such an attack.

Israel and Syria did in fact attack Jerusalem, just as Ahaz feared, because the Lord sought to punish Ahaz for his wickedness. However, the attack proved somewhat futile, as they were not able to take Jerusalem. Rezin, the king of Syria, managed to take Elath for Syria, but they did not conquer more than this (2 Kings 16:5-6). Ahaz, instead of trusting in the Lord like he should have, sought an alliance with Tiglath-pileser. As a way of gaining Assyria’s favor, Ahaz took some of the gold of the Temple and sent it as a tribute (2 Chronicles 28:16-21; 2 Kings 16:7-9). This, of course, only made the situation worse. Here was a fine dilemma: the kings of Israel and Judah both seeking foreign alliances like pagan kings instead of trusting in the Lord!

This, then, is the context for the reading for the Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity. Israel takes the people of Judah captive, treating them like the spoils of war rather than as their brothers. Moses made it perfectly clear that an Israelite could not own another Israelite as a slave (Leviticus 25:39-46), but this civil war showed just how far Israel had strayed from the ways of the Lord. This was not the first civil war in Israel, but like the war with Benjamin, Israelites were following the wickedness of their neighbors. Gibeah imitated Sodom, Israel now imitates Assyria (see Judges 19:22-20:48).

But not all hope is lost. As they bring the captives northward to Samaria, the capital city of Israel, a prophet named Oded confronts them. Even in the midst of the idolatry of Israel, there are still some who follow after the Lord. Many of the great prophets proclaimed their message within the northern kingdom (Elijah and Elisha both, for example). Oded proclaims that while God had used Israel to punish Judah, Israel had added sin upon sin by taking Judah captive (2 Chronicles 28:9-11). While God may indeed use a man as His instrument, whether for blessing or for judgment, this is not a pretext for doing whatever that man pleases. God works through men, because He is able to use evil for His own good purposes, but men remain culpable to God for their sins.

Some of the leaders of Ephraim also speak against this great sin. 7,000 have not bowed the knee to Baal in Israel, though this does not mean that Israel is not guilty. Sin is not as individualistic as we might want it to be. God says very clearly regarding idols, for example, that “you shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me” (Exodus 20:5). He may very well cut off a whole nation because of the sins of a few. God closed the wombs of the house of Abimelech because of his sin toward Sarah (Genesis 20:18). Israel suffers defeat because of Achan’s greed (Joshua 7). If sin affects only the individual, then Paul’s command to cast out the incestuous adulterer in Corinth makes no sense. Rather, “a little leaven leavens the whole lump” (1 Corinthians 5). Even Ezekiel’s clear statement that each man dies for his own sin does not fight against this, because he is speaking against those who believe that they are innocent and suffering unjustly. They are in fact not innocent, because they participate in the sins of their fathers (Ezekiel 18).

Finally, the men of Ephraim do everything that they can to help the captives of Judah by showing them great mercy. This is likely the reason why this passage is connected to the parable of the Good Samaritan in the lectionary. Instead of treating them like slaves contrary to the Law, they treat them as their brothers. One should be careful to note the following points, however. First, Samaria is a city, not a region or a people group, so Samaria and Samaritan in this case are not the same thing. Samaritans do not even yet exist, because Israel has not yet gone into exile (2 Kings 17:24-41). Second, Israel will still go into exile because of their sins. While these men of Ephraim may fear the Lord, Israel as a whole must still be punished. Pekah himself will be deposed shortly after this event, doubtlessly because of his sins (2 Kings 15:30). Lastly, it is worth noting that in the parable of the Good Samaritan, it is a foreigner who acts like a neighbor to the dying man. Here, some men of Ephraim act like neighbors to the men of Judah. The two are similar in that respect, but 2 Chronicles 28 is not an Old Testament parable of the Good Samaritan. One should resist the temptation to rush forward, as if the Old Testament is only the New Testament in disguise.

Second Sunday of Easter: Ezekiel 37:1-14

Following the account of his call in chapters 1-3, Ezekiel preaches against Israel in chapters 4 through 24. Like many of the other prophets, Ezekiel condemns Israel for her sins and proclaims that the judgment is coming swiftly. Ezekiel’s ministry begins close to the end of the kingdom and continues into the exile. However, he turns his attention against the enemies of Israel in chapters 25 through 32, which is good news for Israel. God has not forgotten His people, even as He punishes them for their sins. Ezekiel then returns to Israel, bringing both more words of reproof as well as words of comfort. The reading for the Second Sunday of Easter falls into the latter.

By the time of this passage, Jerusalem has been captured and the kingdom has come to an end. The exiles have begun to despair: “Our bones have dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off” (Ezekiel 37:11). Everything seems to be lost, and all of God’s promises seem to have failed. They are in a foreign land because of their sins, and they are wondering when, or even if, it will end.

Ezekiel 37:1 demonstrates that the valley of dry bones is a vision given to the prophet. Ezekiel says that the “hand of the Lord” was upon him, a key phrase for such visions throughout the book (Ezekiel 3:14, 22; 8:1; 40:1). He is also brought “in the Spirit” into the valley (Revelation 4:2; 17:3). While the Holy Spirit can physically move someone from place to place (such as Philip in Acts 8:39-40), the passage is presented in the language of a prophetic vision. Ezekiel is commanded to go into “the valley” in 3:22, which suggests a physical location, but it is not specified, and he sees a vision both times. If they are the same valley, he does not record the presence of the bones the first time.

Ezekiel 37:2 emphasizes just how many bones there are in this valley, since the prophet is led among them, and it also emphasizes that there is no earthly hope for them. Dry bones have been out in the open for a long time. But the Lord asks him, “Son of Adam, can these bones live” (Ezekiel 37:3)? A rhetorical question, as the Lord already knows what He wants to do (John 6:6; Rev 7:13-14; John 21:15-17). However, Ezekiel recognizes that he should not impose his own thoughts here, but rather answers “Lord God, You know” (compare 2 Peter 1:20).

The Lord commands him to “prophesy” or to speak as he commanded to speak. Ezekiel, in fact, has no choice but to speak in this way, suggesting that for him in particular “the hand of the Lord” is something like a prophetic fit (Ezekiel 3:26-27). It is true that the Lord had loosed his mouth when Jerusalem fell (Ezekiel 33:22), but he still speaks as he is commanded here. It is certainly appropriate to connect this to verses about the Lord being with the mouth of the preacher (such as Jeremiah 15:19 or Luke 10:16), as Ezekiel helps to clarify just how important it is to “guard the deposit entrusted to you” (1 Timothy 6:20-21). But the prophet does so involuntarily or at least does so through most of his ministry.

Nevertheless, it is in the proclamation of the Word of the Lord that all of the things the Lord promises happens to the bones. The bones are commanded to “hear,” which only emphasizes that the Word alone will do what the Lord promises to do (Romans 10:17; Luke 11:28; John 6:63; Psalm 119:25, 117; John 11:43-44). The coming of the Spirit points also to the first creation of man, since the Lord breathed into Adam the “breath of life” (Genesis 2:7). The Lord alone gives physical life, and the Lord alone gives spiritual life (Deuteronomy 32:39; 1 Samuel 2:6; Job 5:18: Hosea 6:1).

Finally, the Lord does nothing without a purpose (Isaiah 55:10-11). He sends this vision to Ezekiel to comfort Israel in the midst of their distress. The beautiful ending of this passage regarding the opening of the graves seems to serve two purposes. First, Israel will be raised from the grave of exile, so to speak, and set back in their own land. Because the major prophets have said this again and again to Israel, even in the face of the coming disaster, “I will bring you into the land” (Ezekiel 37:12, 14) must also carry with it this immediate promise. However, the language is too plain to say that it must only refer to the return from exile. Rather, as Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25-26; see also 1 Corinthians 15; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Revelation 20:13; et al).

Fourth Sunday in Lent: Exodus 16

The first verse in Exodus 16 is important for establishing the context of the pericope for the Fourth Sunday in Lent and should not be excluded. Israel set out from Egypt on the fifteen day of the first month (Numbers 33:3) and has now arrived in the wilderness of Sin thirty days later (assuming that each month in the calendar in the days of Moses had thirty days, as Moses himself suggests in the flood lasting for 150 days or 5 months in Genesis 7:11, 8:3-4). They have just left Elim and the waters of Marah and are heading generally southward toward Sinai.

In this short period of time, Israel has not only left behind the plagues of Egypt but also passed through the Red Sea. They cannot have forgotten the wonders of God in so short a period, even if their hardness of heart causes them to ignore them. However, forgetting even the sweetening of the waters of Marah not that many days ago (Exodus 15:25), they begin to grumble for food. Israel begins to wonder whether they will have enough to eat in the wilderness. Who could find enough food for a congregation likely numbering in the millions (Exodus 12:37)? They even begin to imagine they had it better in Egypt, even though they had cried out to the Lord in their distress (Exodus 2:23-25).

The Lord in His providence provides them with bread from heaven. Manna, described as bread in Exodus 16:4, defies exact description. It is described as “fine,” a word used to describe the dust in Isaiah 29:5 which is contrasted with chaff. Its appearance is like “hoarfrost,” the crystalline frost which tends to form on objects like branches. It is said to either “crackle” or be “flaky,” though that particular word in Exodus 16:14 occurs only here in the Old Testament. Manna is also “white” and like “coriander seed,” but that comes from the Greek Septuagint.  “Coriander” is used to translate this word which is also unique to manna in Exodus 16:31 and Numbers 11:7.  Small wonder that manna means “what is it” in Hebrew!

Together with a miraculous abundance of quail, manna is meant as a sign to Israel that it is the Lord who has brought them out of Egypt (Exodus 16:6). They are given sufficient food in a land which could not normally support millions. Each one measured out an omer of the manna, a unique measurement which only occurs in this passage and is explained in Exodus 16:36. This omer would be enough for every person, literally “a man to the mouth of his eating,” that is, as much as one needs (which occurs in Exodus 12:4; 16:16; 16:18). This corresponds to the Lord’s command that the bread be gathered daily, except on the Sabbath. It is the “matter of a day in that day” and finds a clear parallel in the petition “give us this day our daily bread” (Matthew 6:9-13; Luke 11:1-4). God will provide what we need on the day in which we need it. Why then should we worry? (Matthew 6:25-34).

By following these commands regarding gathering outwardly, Israel would also show an inward trust. When they “measured it with an omer” as the Lord commanded day by day, there would be no lack and no surplus, only exactly what is needed. This is why Paul refers to Exodus 16:18 in 2 Corinthians 8:15. The congregations who had much shared with those who had little, and nothing is left over or lacking as a result. This also applies to the multiplication miracles in Matthew 14:13-21; 15:32-39; Mark 6:32-44; 8:1-10; Luke 9:10-17; and John 6:1-13. Jesus multiplies according to the need so that no one is left hungry. God’s providence is perfect.

Yet many do not listen. They go out to gather on the Sabbath anyway, despite the clear prohibition. They do not believe that the Lord will indeed provide for them. They keep it until the morning, because they want an insurance policy that they will have bread tomorrow. Like their descendants in Jesus’ day, they seek God not because of signs, but because they ate bread (John 6:26). They have no faith.

As a final note, Aaron is commanded to keep a jar of manna as a testimony for future generations of what the Lord has done (Exodus 16:32-34). It would call to mind what God had done as a way of reassuring what God would continue to do for His people. Hebrews 9:1-5 notes that this golden urn was placed within the ark together with Aaron’s staff and the tablets. It was certainly a holy object, since it rested within the ark of the testimony. But 1 Kings 8:9 and 2 Chronicles 5:10 state that both this urn and the staff were gone by the time the ark reached the temple. It is not clear where they went, perhaps being lost through the negligence of the priests or during the captivity of the ark in 1 Samuel 4-6. However, the Lord willed for this to happen, for much like the bronze snake in 2 Kings 18:4, physical reminders always carry with them a temptation in the hearts of sinful men toward idolatry.

Second Sunday in Lent: Genesis 32

The Old Testament reading for the Second Sunday in Lent falls within the section of Genesis beginning with “the generations of Isaac” in Genesis 25:19. Moses then briefly turns to Esau in 36:1 before finally focusing for a long time on Joseph. This section is mostly concerned with Jacob, even though it is named after Isaac. Even though Jacob will not die until the end of the book of Genesis, he recedes into the background after this point and is no longer the focus.

Further, because his section is nearing its end, this is a high point for the story of Jacob. Throughout his whole section, he has struggled with men. It began in the womb with his brother Esau (Genesis 25:22-23). He struggled with Esau for his birthright (Genesis 25:29-34) and his blessing (Genesis 27). He struggled with Laban for his wives (Genesis 29:21-30), for his wages (Genesis 30:25-43), and finally for his family (Genesis 31:17-55). All of this has led up to this point.

Jacob fled southward from Paddam-Aram in what is modern NE Syria, likely along the major trade road which passed through Damascus. After making peace with Laban in Gilead, Jacob goes to the river Jabbok, which moved counterclockwise before rushing down toward the Jordan. He left the road and followed the river, hoping to reach Canaan in the west.

However, even though he has made peace with Laban, Jacob has to face the whole reason he fled northward in the first place: Esau. For all he knows, Esau is still seeking to kill him for stealing both his birthright and his blessing. Jacob does everything that he can to make amends and hopefully avoid the wrath of his brother. He sends everything he has, including his family, across the Jabbok at the best place to cross in the middle of the night. It was likely the early morning by the time it was done and Jacob was alone.

Now, however, in the early hours of the morning, Jacob gets into a wrestling match with an unknown man. The verb translated “to wrestle” here (and this is the only place it occurs) draws a colorful picture: it is likely closely related to the noun for “dust.” Jacob is kicking up the dust in his fight with this man.

Jacob knows who his opponent is, however, because he demands a blessing from Him. Further, When it was all over, Jacob names the place Peniel (or Penuel, which means the same), literally the “face of God.” “I have seen God face to face, and yet my soul has been delivered.” It is true that he demands to know His name, but it pleased the Lord not to reveal everything to Jacob at that time. Just like when he appears to Manoah to announce the birth of Samson (Judges 13:17-18), He does not reveal His name. As He would tell Moses many years later, “I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as God Almighty, but by my name ‘The Lord’ I did not make myself known to them” (Exodus 6:3). The point is not to look for an answer to every question. The Lord does as it pleases Him.

God gives Jacob a new name: Israel. Jacob, which means “Grabber,” has contended with men his whole life and now with God. Therefore, the Lord names him Israel, which means “he contends with God.” It is a fitting name for Jacob and also for his faithful sons, who would also contend with men and with God. Given a new name and blessed by God, Jacob now goes and reconciles with his brother Esau.

Even though the custom Moses mentions in Genesis 32:32 finds its fulfillment in Jesus Christ, the lesson is the same for spiritual Israel. Physical Israel used it to remind themselves of what God had done for Jacob by delivering his life and giving him his new name. Spiritual Israel has similar things to call to mind God’s actions. Like the sinews of the hip, the Word proclaims what God has done.