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Thursday with Tabitha

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Thursday with Tabitha


Introduction by Tabitha Smith

I met Jesus when I was 11-years-old. God had blessed me with a believing family and I sung in church choirs from the time I could read. But I didn't have a personal relationship with Jesus until a certain day in 1990. I'd gone to a violin exam, which was being held in a local church. Waiting nervously for my turn to perform for the examiners, I picked up some leaflets that were sitting on a table in the church foyer. I read one of these leaflets on my own later that day. The message of Jesus dying and rising again for the sins of all people was not brand new to me, as I'd heard it many times before, but at that moment, it was like I heard it and understood it for the first time. I cried my 11-year-old eyes out and then asked my mum if I could get my own Bible. Of course, she agreed! I’ve always identified very strongly with the words in Amazing Grace, “I once was lost but now I’m found, was blind but now I see”, because that’s exactly what it felt like. I made the decision to follow Jesus from that day onwards.

Over the last couple of decades God has been teaching me from the Bible with the help of the Holy Spirit and many great human teachers. It’s gradually become clear to me that my primary spiritual gift is teaching. I feel very privileged to be able to share in the ministry of Partakers.

Over the next few months I'm going to be taking a tour through the books of the minor prophets. I reckon that if you lined up the Bibles of a sample of believers (myself included!) and looked at the pages that looked least worn and thumbed you would find that the minor prophets account for a substantial proportion of the most pristine pages! Even those prophets that we feel more familiar with, like Jonah, have often only featured in our Christian lives in the form of Sunday school stories. Well, it's time to do something about that! The books of the minor prophets are full of incredible truths which will help us to understand the character and heart of God. If you've ever felt intimidated or confused by these particular books in the Bible then I hope you will join me as I give an overview of each book and I really hope you'll be inspired to have a closer look at each one for yourself.

The minor prophets are no less important than the major prophets (such as Isaiah and Jeremiah) but their prophetic books are shorter in length and therefore referred to as 'minor'. The books of the minor prophets were written over a long time span, ranging from the eighth century BC to the fourth or fifth century BC. We're going to look at them in roughly chronological order, which is a little different to the order they appear in the Bible. The dating of certain books, such as Obadiah and Joel, is uncertain and scholars disagree about when these books were written. So please forgive me if the order in which I tackle the books is not the precise order that you expect!

It's first helpful to consider what the role of a prophet is. When we think of the word 'prophecy' we often think about predictions relating to the future. Now, the prophets did sometimes speak about things that had not yet happened, but much more often they spoke about present events and announced God's thoughts and messages to the peoples of Israel and Judah. Prophets were not generally regular teachers of God's word (that was the task of the priests). Instead prophets were raised up at particular times and for particular situations, to speak God's words to the people. They were able to see things and understand things that other people could not.

As we look at the 12 books of the minor prophets we will see some common themes emerging. The prophets repeatedly spoke of the fact that God had chosen Israel for a covenant relationship; they declared the sad truth that the majority of Israel had sinned against God and turned away from him; they warned about coming judgement; and they declared the promise of renewal and restoration that would follow judgement, both in the immediate future and at the end of history.

As we study each book we need to first look at what book meant to the people who first heard the message. When we have understood this we can then consider how each book speaks to us today. Our first study will begin next Thursday in the book of Jonah. I hope you'll join me then!

Tabitha

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Malachi

Welcome to the last installment in our series about the minor prophets. Our final book is Malachi, the last book in the Old Testament. There is something very exciting about this book! Perhaps it’s the sense of anticipation contained within it. The first book of the New Testament lies just over the page! But before we get there, Malachi has serious words from God to convey to his people. The name Malachi means “my messenger” and this theme is picked up during the prophecy. It is likely that Malachi was a contemporary of Ezra and Nehemiah, writing in the mid 5th century BC.

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To recap the history briefly, Judah had been permitted to returned from exile in Babylon in 538 BC by king Cyrus of Persia. Haggai and Zechariah had encouraged the people to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. God had promised his people great restoration and he had promised that he would dwell among them, but the political and social environment of the day remained very difficult. Judah was small in land area and in population; the second temple was an inferior shadow of the former magnificent temple; Judah was allowed some freedom to self-rule but they were still under the ultimate control of Persia and they endured a lot of hostility and opposition from their neighbours.

The people had become cynical and disillusioned and their worship had suffered as a result. Malachi’s prophecy is a loud wake-up call to the nation, urging them to turn back to God and renew their covenant commitment to him.

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The prophecy consists of a series of charges that God brings against his people. God then anticipates the way the people will question the validity of the charges, defensively asking how they can be true. In each case, God explains why his accusations are valid.

The book opens with God’s declaration that he has loved his people. The people ask, “How have you loved us?”, showing their cynicism about God’s steadfast covenant love for them.

 

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God’s first accusation against the people is that they are the ones who have not shown love, failing to honour God and despising his name. God outlines in more detail some examples of this in their behaviour.

The priests have been offering sacrifices that are offensive to God. The only animals acceptable for sacrifice in the temple were healthy, whole animals without sickness or defect. The priests were responsible for checking the condition of the animals that the people brought for sacrifice. They had neglected this duty and compromised their standards to allow the offering of blind, lame and diseased animals at the temple. God would rather that the temple doors were shut and no offerings brought at all rather than these half-hearted, second-rate offerings be made.

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The people were trying to cheat God by keeping back the better animals for themselves and bringing the ones that were not fit for anything else to the temple. To use a lesser analogy, one way that we show our love for another person is the care we take over choosing a gift for them. How offended would your husband, wife, or friend be if you promised them a perfect gift, and they knew you’d bought it for them, and then on their birthday you gave them a second-hand, slightly damaged and rather dirty gift instead and kept the perfect one for yourself? How much worse it is to bring a defective offering to God, when the issue at stake isn’t someone’s birthday gift but the very serious issue of offering a sacrifice for sin!

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In chapter 2 God makes a second accusation, this time regarding the way the people have abused the marriage covenant. Firstly, they have intermarried with people from pagan nations, who worship idols. Secondly, they have adopted a casual attitude to divorce, with men sending their wives away simply because they stopped feeling affection towards them. The people were perplexed and distressed that God appeared to have withheld blessing from them, not accepting their worship. God explains that their disobedience in regard to his standards for marriage is a part of the reason for this.

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Another accusation follows quickly: the people have continually questioned God’s justice and doubted his ability to make just decisions. They have accused God of letting evil people get away with everything.

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In chapter 3 God announces the coming of a messenger to prepare the way before him. The arrival of the messenger will be followed by the sudden coming of the Lord to his temple. In Old Testament history, the completions of the tabernacle and the first temple had both been followed immediately by the dramatic, visible presence and glory of the Lord filling the worship place. This hadn’t happened after the completion of the second temple but God promises that he will arrive suddenly, fulfilling the people’s desire for his presence in their midst. But God warns that this will not be a day of delight for all. As in the book of Amos, God tells his people that the coming of the Day of the Lord will bring judgement. The people of Judah had assumed that they were immune from judgement by nature of their identity as God’s people but God makes it clear that they will still be judged according to their faithfulness to him. Judah will be refined and purified through judgement.

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God then accuses the people of stealing from him by not bringing him the proper tithe of their offerings. Similar to the situation with the animal sacrifices, the people were keeping back more than they should have done, causing offence to God. This charge is leveled against the whole nation, not just the priests. God challenges the people to test him, declaring that if they would only bring the whole tithe to him, he would bless them abundantly in return. The behaviour of the people in regard to their offerings demonstrates their lack of trust in God’s gracious provision. In chapter 3 verse 14 the people sum up their spiritual destitution by declaring that it is futile to serve God.

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However, God takes note of a small remnant of faithful people who continue to worship him properly with a right heart. He carefully records their names to ensure that they are preserved.

The book ends in chapter 4 with the promise of the coming Day of the Lord, when evil will be judged and destroyed and those who have been faithful to God will be restored and healed. Malachi says:

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“But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall.” (Malachi 4:2 ESV)

The final words of the book declare that Elijah the prophet will come before the Day of the Lord. And there the Old Testament ends. So what happens next?

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After Malachi put down his pen, there followed 400 years of prophetic silence. Seismic events occurred in the political and social landscape of the Middle East and Europe, and empires came and went. Then one day, an obedient priest called Zechariah had an extraordinary encounter with an angel of God whilst serving in the temple in Jerusalem. The angel announced the coming birth of Zechariah’s son, who was to be called John. After John’s miraculous birth to his previously infertile older mother, Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied over his newborn son. His song is recorded in Luke chapter 1. Strikingly, in verses 76-79 he says:

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“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” (Luke 1:76-79 ESV)

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At last the promised sunrise of salvation was coming! When John the Baptist started his prophetic ministry, many Jews wondered whether he might be Elijah, returned to earth again, as Malachi had prophesied. John declared that he was not Elijah.

However, John was the fulfilment of Malachi’s prophecy about the coming messenger who would prepare the way for the Lord. Jesus himself identifies John as the promised Elijah. In Matt 11:11-15 he says:

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Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. He who has ears to hear, let him hear. (Matthew 11:11-15 ESV)

In fact, this is just what the angel had promised Zechariah about his future son:

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And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” (Luke 1:16-17)

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Shortly after John’s birth, Jesus was born to Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem. The new parents took their little baby to the temple in Jerusalem to present him to God, as the law required for a first-born son. Mary and Joseph were quite surprised to be greeted by Simeon, a devout man who was waiting for the promised Messiah. Simeon was filled with the Holy Spirit and declared:

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“Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.” (Luke 2:29-32)

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The Lord had suddenly come to his temple, in the rather unexpected guise of a human baby. Simeon knew that this was the fulfilment of God’s promise.

No-one anticipated how Jesus would bring about that salvation. Even his own disciples didn’t understand it despite Jesus explicitly telling them that he would be killed and then raised from the dead and that he had to die for the sins of the world.

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The forgiveness of our sins no longer depends on us offering sacrifices of animals to God. Praise God that we can have forgiveness of our sins through our identification with Jesus’ sacrifice of himself on the cross!

But now we are called to be living sacrifices (Romans 12:1)! Our whole lives are now meant to be lived as an act of sacrifice and worship to God. Perhaps Malachi’s words about half-hearted, inadequate offerings need to stir us today! If our attitude to our service to God and our giving of resources is focused on what we can get away with keeping, rather than what we delight to give, Malachi challenges us to consider how we are honouring God.

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I really hope you’ve enjoyed this series. I’ve learned so much by reading and studying these fascinating books of prophecy and I’ve come to appreciate them in a whole new way. I pray that you’ve been encouraged to read them with me.

 

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Joel

This is our penultimate podcast in the minor prophets series! This week we are looking at the book of Joel. I had some degree of dilemma about where to place Joel in the roughly chronological order of the series and that’s because the estimates of when the book was written vary widely from the 9th to 4th century BC. After looking at the content of Joel’s prophecies, I decided to go with the scholars who argue that Joel was written after the exile to Babylon, dating it somewhere around the year 500 BC. Joel evidently has knowledge of Judah and Jerusalem and it seems likely that he was from Judah himself. His name means “Yahweh is God” and we are told that his father was called Pethuel. Other than that, we know little about Joel himself.

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Joel is similar in style to several of the other minor prophetic books, being written in the form of oracles of judgement and salvation, mostly in poetic style. Joel appears to have written during a time of national calamity for Judah. Key themes of his book are the Day of the Lord, the need to repent, the promise of God that he will dwell in the midst of his people, and the future promise of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

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Chapter one contains a vivid description of the invasion of the land of Judah by a locust swarm. Locusts are grasshoppers that breed very rapidly and fly in swarms when their population density is high enough. They can migrate large distances when in a swarm and they consume vast amounts of vegetation when they land. A swarm of locusts is a potential disaster for any farmer as it can decimate crops and vineyards, leaving virtually nothing behind.

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Joel describes exactly this sort of devastation in chapter 1 verses 1-12. Everything is laid bare, even the bark of the trees is stripped. The priests of Judah are instructed to lament and fast because they can no longer offer the proper sacrifices at the temple because all the grain, wine and oil are gone. The animals are suffering from lack of food and verses 19-20 indicate that there is also a drought occurring at the same time. Joel’s prophecy warns the people that the Day of the Lord is near. This could refer to the immediate day of the locust invasion, or to a future day of God’s judgement on the nations, or perhaps to both.

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Just when it seems that things couldn’t get worse, chapter 2 reveals that it can get much worse! The second chapter contains a terrifying description of an invading army, marching unstoppably across Judah. There are a number of opinions about the nature of this army: some believe that Joel is still describing the locusts, using more graphic imagery; others say that Joel is describing a human army invading Judah; or a third interpretation is that the army described is the Lord’s army, coming to judge the world on the Day of the Lord in an epic final conflict. Whichever is the case, this army is fearsome, purposeful and not hindered by any obstacle. Joel also describes other apocalyptic signs, which are found in other parts of the Bible when describing the Day of the Lord: the sun, moon and stars are dimmed and the earth is shaken.

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Yet, even in spite of this predicted calamity, it is not too late. In chapter 2:12-17 God calls his people to repentance and entreats them to return to him. Joel describes God as a God of mercy and grace, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. God desires to see real change in the hearts and souls of his people, not just outward signs of repentance (like the tearing of clothes), but a genuine change of heart.

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“Yet even now,” declares the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster. (Joel 2:12-13)

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The priests are urged to consecrate the whole congregation, even including little babies and newly weds. No one is exempt.

In response to the people’s repentance, God promises to restore Judah again, refilling the wine and oil vats and replenishing the threshing floors. God has judged his people but he has also brought deliverance and restoration to them. In chapter 2 verses 28-29 we find a prophecy about the future outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

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“And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit. (Joel 2:28-29)

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We see this prophecy fulfilled after Jesus’ death and resurrection when God pours out the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Peter quotes from this section in his speech to the crowd on the day of Pentecost – you can find this in Acts 2.

Just after this prophecy in Joel, we find the declaration that in those days,

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“…everyone who calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved.” (Joel 2:32)

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Paul quotes this in Romans 10:13 in his explanation of the universal availability of God’s salvation to anyone who calls on the name of Jesus, regardless of their ethnic background or previous religious credentials, or lack of them.

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In chapter 3 God promises that he will judge the nations and restore the fortunes of his people. He will dwell in the midst of his people and be a source of security and refuge in the midst of the judgement to come.

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Multitudes, multitudes, in the valley of decision! For the day of the LORD is near in the valley of decision. The sun and the moon are darkened, and the stars withdraw their shining. The LORD roars from Zion, and utters his voice from Jerusalem, and the heavens and the earth quake. But the LORD is a refuge to his people, a stronghold to the people of Israel. (Joel 3:14-16)

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The picture is one of great contrasts. As in other prophetic books, like Zephaniah, the Day of the Lord brings judgement and fear to some and relief and restoration for others.

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What messages can we take from the book of Joel today?

Firstly, we can celebrate the fulfilment of the prophecy in Joel 2:28-29. The Holy Spirit has been poured out on all believers, both young and old, men and women. The Holy Spirit is God’s gift to us - to help us, equip us, guide us and comfort us. In the early church, one of the things that helped to convince the Jewish believers that the Gentiles were also welcomed into God’s kingdom was the clear evidence of the dramatic work of the Holy Spirit in their lives. Salvation is indeed available to all people, to anyone who calls on the name of Jesus.

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I was particularly struck by God’s plea for the people to rend their hearts, not their garments. This reminds me of David’s prayer in Psalm 51:

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The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. (Psalm 51:17)

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We can be so easily taken in by outward appearances, and we can spend a lot of time cultivating our outward appearance to portray the right image to the world around us, or to our fellow believers. But God is interested in the states of our hearts. He sees the real you and the real me, all of the time.

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When David was being chosen from the sons of Jesse to be anointed by Samuel, the prophet declared that:

 

…the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart. (1 Samuel 16:7)

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David came to know this truth very deeply for himself. He tried to hide lies and adultery and murder from other people but he could not hide from God.

We may also try to hide the parts of our lives, or the aspects of our character that we are embarrassed or ashamed about, but God knows us better than we know ourselves. Nothing is hidden from his sight. As our loving Father, he longs for us to acknowledge these things before him and rend our hearts in response. Nothing will come as a surprise to him - he already knows!

We can try all sorts of things to fix our own hearts and we can sometimes convince ourselves we’ve done quite a good patching up job. But in truth, only God can perform the heart transplant we need. He is the one who can renew our hearts and clean us from the inside out. And his invitation stands open to anyone who would call on his name. So we can pray along with David:

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Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. (Psalm 51:10)

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Join me next week as we look at the final book in our series – Malachi - the last recorded prophetic voice before John the Baptist!

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Zechariah

This week we’ve reached the book of Zechariah. After spending a couple of weeks in the very short books of Obadiah and Haggai, I found Zechariah to be quite a contrast. It’s a much longer book with 14 chapters, and the style of prophetic writing is quite different too. There is so much that we could choose to look at in this complex, beautiful book, but it would be beyond the scope of this podcast to look in detail at all the prophesies that Zechariah received. Instead I’ll start with a brief historical background and an overview of some of the main themes of the book, and then I’ll focus on some of the prophecies that were fulfilled most clearly in the life of Jesus. We’ll end with some thoughts to take away for our own lives.

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Zechariah came from a priestly family. We are given the names of his father and grandfather, Berechiah and Iddo. His grandfather’s name appears in Nehemiah 12:4 where he is listed as one of the Levites who returned to Jerusalem with Zerubbabel in about 538 BC, according to the edict of King Cyrus of Persia.

Zechariah’s prophecy starts 2 months after Haggai’s. The book is made up of a collection of nine visions followed by other prophetic oracles. These take the form of individual units, which don’t follow a clear narrative pattern. The style of the prophecy is futuristic, and sometimes quite obscure to the modern reader. Many of the prophecies bear similarities to those found in the book of Revelation, at the end of the New Testament, and they need to be approached in a similar way, with careful appreciation of the symbolism involved.

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As we learned last week, some of the exiled people of Judah had returned to Jerusalem after King Cyrus permitted them to do so. They had started to rebuild the temple and the walls but they had become discouraged by opposition. They were also facing difficulties in their everyday lives, including high taxes under the Persian rule. Worship of God and obedience to his law were quite low down on their list of priorities.

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The book of Zechariah opens with a call from God to the people to repent and return to him:

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Therefore say to them, Thus declares the LORD of hosts: Return to me, says the LORD of hosts, and I will return to you, says the LORD of hosts. (Zechariah 1:3)

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The people do repent and turn back to God, so God keeps his promise. There then follows a series of visions that Zechariah receives during the night. The visions contain God’s promises of restoration for his people, forgiveness, removal of sin and idolatry from the land, and the blessing and expansion of Jerusalem. 

God calls his people back to sincere and genuine faith. He wants them to be just, merciful, mindful of the vulnerable and honest in their dealings with each other (Zech 7:8-10).

The book of Zechariah does contain some messages of judgement for the enemies of God’s people, and for those who do not respond to God’s call to return to him, but the majority of the book is made up of promises of hope and restoration. God promises to turn the former times of fasting into times of feasting for his people (Zech 7:18-19).

In the second half of the book, we find prophecy relating to the coming King of Zion. He is portrayed as a divine warrior (Zech 9:1-8) and also called The Branch. In chapter 11, God promises to replace the evil shepherds of his people, the corrupt leaders, with a good shepherd. These are all prophecies about the coming Messiah.  

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There are up to 54 passages in Zechariah that are alluded to in 67 places in the New Testament, mostly in the book of Revelation. In addition, there are a few specific prophecies in Zechariah, which find their fulfilment very clearly in the life of Jesus. The gospel writers quote these verses from Zechariah in their accounts. We’ll look at these verses now.

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Firstly, Zechariah 9:9: Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. (Zechariah 9:9)

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Matthew and John both refer to this verse in their gospel accounts of Jesus entering Jerusalem riding on a donkey (Matt 21:5, John 12:15). They understood that Jesus was deliberately fulfilling prophecy, making a clear statement about his identity as the promised Messiah.

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In Zechariah 11:13 we read a slightly odd statement about the good shepherd being valued at 30 pieces of silver, and these pieces subsequently being thrown back into the house of the Lord, to the potter. In Matthew 27:9 we see that Matthew draws on the words of Zechariah and Jeremiah and applies these to the actions and fate of Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. When Judas saw what was going to happen to Jesus, he tried to give the blood money back to the priests, who refused to take it back. Overcome with remorse and guilt, he threw the 30 pieces of silver back into the temple and went and hanged himself. The priests and elders bought a field known as the Potters Field with the money and it was used as a burial place for foreigners.

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In Zechariah 12:10 we read: “And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy, so that, when they look on me, on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn. (Zechariah 12:10)

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John takes this verse and applies it to Jesus’ crucifixion. In John 19:31-37 we read about the soldier who pierced Jesus’ side to verify that he was dead after his crucifixion. John then quotes Zechariah, “they will look on him whom they have pierced” and sees the action of the solider as a fulfilment of this prophecy. There are other Old Testament passages which speak prophetically about the manner of the Messiah’s death, notably sections in Isaiah 53 and in Psalm 22. The details are quite striking, particularly bearing in mind that crucifixion did not come into use as a means of execution until several hundred years after Psalm 22 was written.

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Finally we see Zechariah 13:7 quoted by Matthew (26:31) and Mark (14:27) in their descriptions of Jesus’s disciples deserting him and fleeing from the garden of Gethsemane.

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“Strike the shepherd and the sheep will be scattered”. (Zechariah 13:7)

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The verse in Zechariah is describing the good shepherd and how he will be struck down. Matthew and Mark both see the scattering of the disciples in the scattering of the sheep.

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The book of Zechariah ends on a note of victory and triumph with God reigning over the whole earth and Jerusalem finally dwelling in peace.

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There are two short verses from the early parts of the book that I want to consider. The first is Zechariah 4:10. In this section, God is encouraging Zechariah that he will empower Zerubbabel and his fellow workers to complete the rebuilding of the temple. God says: For whoever has despised the day of small things shall rejoice, and shall see the plumb line in the hand of Zerubbabel. (Zechariah 4:10a ESV)

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Sometimes it can feel as if we live in a day of small things. The ordinary routines and rhythms of our everyday lives can seem quite insignificant. There is a temptation to always be looking ahead to what the next big thing will be or feeling despondent about an apparent lack of excitement or significance in what we do. Sometimes we have our mountain top experiences and spiritual highs in special events or significant achievements, but the reality is that life is lived in the in-between times. In the days of small things.

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God knows all the days of our lives and each day and moment can be used for his glory. But not if we’re despising the time. Our awesome Creator and Sustainer is the source of our every breath and his gift of life to us is not to be taken lightly. In the times that are difficult, painful or seemingly futile, we can cling on to Jesus’ promise to us that our Father God cares about us more than we can imagine. He even knows the number of hairs on our heads (Matt 10:30).

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The second verse is Zechariah 3:6. God gives Zechariah a message to encourage Zerubbabel. He wants him to know that the rebuilding of the temple will be accomplished and he says: “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts.” (Zech 3:6)

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There are times when we will face seemingly insurmountable obstacles or daunting mountains of opposition. The Holy Spirit can empower us in ways we could not imagine and those mountains can become plains in front of us. We need to be prepared for God to work in ways we do not expect but if we have faith in his promises to us, the unlimited power of the Holy Spirit is available to help us and that is far better than any human power or might.

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I’ll close with Paul’s words to the Ephesians: Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (Ephesians 3:20-21)

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Haggai

Hello, welcome back to our minor prophets series. This week we are looking at the book of Haggai. This is another short book, consisting of just 2 chapters.

 

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As with several of the other minor prophets, we don’t know much about Haggai himself. We can be quite sure about the dating of the book though, because Haggai included precise dates for the oracles he received from God. These details place the book in the year 520 BC, and between the months of August and December. Haggai was a contemporary of the prophet Zechariah.

 

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In 539 BC Cyrus the Great of Persia conquered and overthrew Babylon. One of the first things Cyrus did was make an edict that allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem in order to rebuild the temple. This action was predicted by the prophet Isaiah and recounted in the first two chapters of the book of Ezra.

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About 50 000 Jews, including Ezra, returned to Jerusalem in 536 BC and they began to rebuild the city. Ezra encountered significant opposition to his work and the building work stalled. Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem 13 years later to spearhead another major push to rebuild the walls. His building team managed to complete the building of the walls but they also faced hostile opposition and the population of Jerusalem was still relatively small and vulnerable. The people had a dramatic experience of repentance and revival under Nehemiah’s leadership but after he’d left them to go back to his job in Babylon the people quickly slipped into sinful ways.

 

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By the time we reach the prophecy of Haggai, 16 years have passed since the origin return of the first exiles to Jerusalem.

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King Darius is ruling the kingdom of Persia, which now includes the territory of Judah. The people of Jerusalem have settled back into their city and they have built houses for themselves. But there is a problem. They have left the temple in a state of decay and ruin.

 

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God sends his word via Haggai to Zerubbabel, the governor of Judah, and to Joshua, the high priest:

 

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 “Thus says the LORD of hosts: These people say the time has not yet come to rebuild the house of the LORD.”

(Haggai 1:2)

 

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The people have busied themselves in the building of their own houses but they have procrastinated about rebuilding God’s house, the symbol of God’s presence amongst them. God explains to the people that because of their indifference and neglect of his house, he has frustrated their efforts to be fruitful and productive in their farming and manufacturing. They have been working hard to produce clothes and food but yet they cannot seem to get warm or satisfied. God cannot stand by and allow his house to be neglected in this way whilst the people simply pursue their own interests.

 

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Once the people hear this and realise the source of their failure, they obey God and commence the work on the temple. They have physical work to do and also emotional work to do, turning their hearts back towards God. The people respond with respect and fear of God and God reassures them:

Then Haggai, the messenger of the LORD, spoke to the people with the LORD's message, “I am with you, declares the LORD.” (Haggai 1:13)

 

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Some of the people of Jerusalem would have been old enough to recall Solomon’s temple in the days before the fall of Jerusalem and the exile to Babylon. Once the building work got underway it became obvious to them that the rebuilt temple would be nothing like the old temple; it would be much plainer and far less glorious. So God sends word to Haggai again to encourage the people.

 

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‘Who is left among you who saw this house in its former glory? How do you see it now? Is it not as nothing in your eyes? Yet now be strong, O Zerubbabel, declares the LORD. Be strong, O Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest. Be strong, all you people of the land, declares the LORD. Work, for I am with you, declares the LORD of hosts, according to the covenant that I made with you when you came out of Egypt. My Spirit remains in your midst. Fear not.

(Haggai 2:3-5)

 

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God speaks with great comfort and love to his people and assures them that he is not going to leave them and they have no need to be afraid. God promises that he will fill the temple with the treasures of the nations and, more than that, he will fill it with his very presence, making it more glorious than the first temple.

 

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God’s next word is to the priests, three months after the rebuilding began. He reminds them that something that is ceremonially clean cannot make an unclean thing holy by touching it, but something unclean is capable of defiling something holy. In the same way, the ruin of the temple has rendered all of the offerings of the people unholy and inadequate. Although God has punished his people by limiting the fruitfulness of their produce, he promises to bless them again, once the temple is rebuilt.

 

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The final part of the book is addressed to Zerubbabel the governor.

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On that day, declares the LORD of hosts, I will take you, O Zerubbabel my servant, the son of Shealtiel, declares the LORD, and make you like a signet ring, for I have chosen you, declares the LORD of hosts.” (Haggai 2:23)

 

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Zerubbabel was a descendent of king David. In this section God is confirming his promise to bless his people, and eventually the whole world, through the house of David. A signet ring was a used to make a mark in wax or other soft material as an official seal and sign of royal approval and authority. God sets Zerubbabel over his people as his chosen instrument. And, lo and behold, if we look ahead into Matt 1:12-13, we find Zerubbabel’s name in the genealogy of Jesus.

 

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So what can the prophet Haggai teach us today?

Firstly, although the focus of the prophecy is on the rebuilding of the temple, the message is not primarily about a building, it’s about a relationship. God was concerned with the neglect of the temple because it was a sign of the people’s neglect of their relationship with God. God is not pursuing and saving and loving bricks – he’s interested in people.

 

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Sometimes we are called to embark on literal building projects for the sake of God’s kingdom. There is often hard physical work to be done and practical things to be arranged, but the point of it is to bring people into a relationship with God. It’s all for his glory and his name.

 

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Sometimes our labours are less about bricks and mortar and more about learning and teaching or writing and blogging. Sometimes they are about planning or hosting events or arranging meetings and conferences. These things can be very important in building up the body of Christ, but they are not to exist simply for their own benefit. It is not primarily about the well-written lesson or sermon or book or blog. Neither is it just about the successful event, the well-attended talk or the popular conference. It’s about a relationship with the creator of the universe. No matter how hard we slave away under the guise of working for God, if we’ve neglected our relationship with him, the works will be useless. God wants our hearts and our minds first of all. He wants our love. We cannot prove our love in our works, we need to experience it as a reality in our relationship with God, and from this our works will follow.

 

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Paul says it like this in 1 Corinthians 13:

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.(1 Corinthians 13:1-3)

 

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Secondly, God wants our work for him to take a place of highest priority in our lives. When Jesus teaches his disciples about worry, he tells them to stop being so concerned with what they are going to eat or drink or wear. He then says:

 

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But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6:33)

 

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Jesus says that God knows what we require and he understands our physical needs, but if we will only make his kingdom work our first priority, he will see to our other needs as well. Haggai reminds us that all things come from God in the first place, so it really is quite foolish to hang onto our stuff so tightly, when it all came from God’s generous hand in the first place. 

 

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Finally, Haggai reminds us that a more glorious temple is coming, and in fact has already come. Haggai spoke God’s prophecy about a temple that would be filled with God’s glory, more glorious than the first temple. When Jesus died on the cross the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The way to God was opened and there was no longer a need for God’s people to meet him within the confines of the physical temple, through the mediation of a priest.

 

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The old temple became obsolete and the new temple is now made up of living stones, the individual believers in Christ. Peter describes it like this:

 

You yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

(1 Peter 2:5)

 

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In the book of Haggai, God promises to the people of Judah that he is in their midst. In the book of Revelation we see the ultimate realisation of this promise. In chapter 21 of Revelation the apostle John writes about his vision:

 

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I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendour into it. On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there. The glory and honour of the nations will be brought into it.

(Rev 21:22-26)

 

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Next week we’re going to be looking at some selected highlights from the longer book of Zechariah. It’s one of the Old Testament prophetic books that is quoted numerous times in the New Testament and there is some incredible prophecy that we see fulfilled in the life of Jesus. Join me again next week to find out more!

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Thursday with Tabitha


9. Obadiah by Tabitha Smith

This week we’ve reached the little book of Obadiah. He was the most minor of the minor prophets, in that his book is the shortest! In fact, it’s the shortest book in the whole of the Old Testament with just one chapter, containing 21 verses.
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Obadiah means “one who serves Yahweh”. We’re not told anything else about the prophet himself. In the course of the prophecy, the fall of Jerusalem (which happened in 586 BC) is referred to as a past event and the fall of Edom (which happened in 553 BC) as a future event. So it is likely that the book was written between these events.

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To understand the background to Obadiah, we need to head back to Genesis, to the account of the brothers Jacob and Esau. These two non-identical twins were born to Isaac and Rebekah. Even from their birth, they showed signs of not exactly getting along. Esau was born first, all red and hairy, and Jacob followed after him, grasping his heel. They grew up to be very different. Esau was a skilled hunter, favoured by his father, whilst Joseph was an introverted man who preferred to stay with his mother in the proximity of the family tents.


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Jacob famously tricked the hungry Esau out of his birth rite and later stole his father’s blessing by disguising himself as his older brother and fooling the elderly, blind Isaac. So Esau swore revenge on his brother and fully intended to kill him. Rebekah helped Jacob to escape and he fled to the territory of his uncle Laban. There he met and married his wives, Leah and Rachel. Esau, who was also called Edom, married several wives, including an Ishmaelite woman (that is, a descendent of Abraham’s first son by the slave girl Hagar).

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Jacob and Esau did meet again some years later, and much to Jacob’s relief and surprise, Esau didn’t kill him on the spot but appeared to have forgiven him. Jacob still didn’t trust him though, and he took his family off in a different direction to avoid having to be in close proximity to his brother’s family.


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Jacob had 12 sons by his two wives and their two servants. His 4th son, one of Leah’s children, was Judah, and from his line the tribe of Judah came into existence. From Esau’s line came the tribe of the Edomites.


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The Edomites lived in the hill country of Seir. This was a mountainous region about 1500m above sea level. Their territory appeared to be impenetrable and they felt quite safe in their high dwellings. In Numbers 20 we read that after the Exodus from Egypt, the Israelites asked the Edomites for permission to pass through their territory along the King’s Highway. The Edomites refused, adding to the tensions between these two tribes. However, in Deuteronomy 23:7-8, God commanded the Israelites that they should not hate an Edomite in view of the brotherly connection between the two tribes.

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Edom was defeated by king Saul in the 11th century BC and subdued again by king David 40 years later. Edom became a vassal state of Israel but it was never completely de-stroyed.


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Fast forward to the time of Obadiah, and we find that the tribe of Judah, the sole remnant of the original 12 tribes of Israel, had been conquered and the capital city of Jerusalem had fallen to the Babylonians. During the conquest of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar, some of the Judeans had tried to escape from the city and flee into the surrounding coun-tryside. The Edomites, rather than helping their neighbours and brothers in the time of their distress, sided with the foreign invaders and handed over the fleeing Israelites to the Babylonians. Psalm 137:7 recalls how the Edomites gloated over the destruction of Jeru-salem:

Remember, O LORD, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem, how they said, “Lay it bare, lay it bare, down to its foundations!”

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The main theme of Obadiah is the judgement of the Edomites for the way they betrayed the people of Judah during the Babylonian invasion.


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The first 15 verses of the book are addressed to the people of Edom. God scorns the pride and arrogance of the Edomites, who say to themselves, “who will bring me down to the ground?” (v3), referring to their perceived safety in their high mountain region. But God will bring them down and they will be punished for their evil deeds. The prophet mixes both past tense and future tense verbs when describing Edom’s fate. This is a technique that can be found in prophetic writing, when future events are sometimes described as if they had already happened.


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God’s message through Obadiah is that Edom will be completely destroyed, with not a trace left behind. The main charges against Edom are found in verses 12-14: "But do not gloat over the day of your brother in the day of his misfortune; do not rejoice over the people of Judah in the day of their ruin; do not boast in the day of distress. Do not enter the gate of my people in the day of their calamity; do not gloat over his disaster in the day of his calamity; do not loot his wealth in the day of his calamity. Do not stand at the crossroads to cut off his fugitives; do not hand over his survivors in the day of distress."


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The judgement is summarised in verse 15: "As you have done, it shall be done to you; your deeds shall return on your own head."

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The final part of the book relates to the people of Jerusalem. God promises that he will preserve a remnant of his people who will survive the exile and reclaim the land that is theirs, according to his plans and promise. To the devastated people of Judah, this would have been an incredible promise of hope. It seemed, to all intents and purposes, that their future was doomed and that God’s promises to Abraham had come to nothing. But God promises that Judah will become like a raging fire once more, whilst Edom is reduced to stubble. Judah’s time of judgement for her own sin would be over, and then God would judge her enemies.


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The final words of the book, in verse 21, declare that “the kingdom shall be the Lord’s.” The promised land of the Old Testament foretells the reality of the greater promised land, which is the coming kingdom of God. Matthew’s gospel in particular speaks of this prom-ised kingdom, which Jesus ushered in during his time on earth. The whole of the Bible is the story of this ultimate kingdom, reaching its climax in the book of Revelation. The king-dom of God is already here, but it is not yet fully here. That won’t happen until Jesus re-turns.

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In chapter 11 of the book of Hebrews, the writer recounts the names of the men and women of the Old Testament who trusted in God’s promises to them regarding the coming kingdom.

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He then writes in verse 13-16: “These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.


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This city is the new Jerusalem, the heavenly kingdom. Jesus used several metaphors to try to help his listeners grasp the nature of the kingdom of God. He described it as a tiny mustard seed which grew into a huge tree, or as a tiny amount of yeast which could make a whole batch of dough rise. From tiny, seemingly in-consequential beginnings, something great grows. When all seemed lost to the exiled people of Judah, God says “just wait and see what I will do”. And the glory of the final kingdom is made all the greater by the trial of the journey.

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You and I are invited to be part of this coming kingdom of God. No matter how small and insignificant we might feel in the great plan of God, and no matter how dire our circumstances seem to be, we can be assured that God’s kingdom is coming and we can be part of it. It is surprising and mysterious, hidden and yet revealed, wonderful and awesome. It is something new, something different, something glorious. It is possible for the wisest brains to miss it completely whilst little children understand and embrace it.

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God is doing a new thing and he invites us to come and see. The prophet Isaiah recorded God’s words to his exiled people:

Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” (Isaiah 43:18-19)


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Some 700 years after Isaiah, Jesus walked the streets of Jerusalem and declared:

I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” (John 14:6)

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Even the seemingly obscure prophecy of Obadiah is part of Jesus’ great story. It’s all about him. Between the lines of prophecy about Edom and Judah we see the greater picture of God’s redemption plan and his justice, mercy and grace. When the risen Jesus walked on the road to Emmaus and explained to the amazed disciples how the Law and all the prophets spoke about himself, I like to think that he said a bit about Obadiah.


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We’ve got four more books to look at before this series draws to a close, and there are lots more interesting things to come as we look at Haggai, Zechariah, Joel and Malachi. Join me next week if you can!

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