Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Countdown to Destruction: 1

The Apostle Paul loved to use the analogy of the earthen vessel in illustrating spiritual life. He said that—

“we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:7–9, 16–18).

The principle of the earthen vessel has been at work from the creation of Adam to the time Israel became a nation, exiled into Babylonia, repatriated to Palestine, exploded into all the world five hundred years after, and then re-gathered into the same strip of land they were promised four thousand years before into the State of Israel. The passage above which so many Christians cite to encourage themselves in the midst of their troubles worked for the Israelite nation in its role as the earthen jar which encased the house of God.

Yet the principle expands even further. Like a Russian Matryosha doll, its application can be seen as an individual’s immortal spirit encased in man’s perishing shell to the indwelling of God’s Spirit as the core of man’s life to the House God has built being sheltered by a nation chosen by God, and now as the Israelite world becoming Paul’s “treasure” in 2 Corinthians 4:7 and the “jars of clay” are the foreign nations that adopted them. How these nations treated the Israelites was a seed sown and reaped at God’s appointed time.

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In Lamentations 4:2, the Prophet Jeremiah alluded the Israelites to “pots of clay”: "How the precious children of Zion, once worth their weight in gold, are now considered as pots of clay, the work of a potter’s hands!" 

When the Mesopotamians descended upon the Israelites in the eighth and sixth centuries B.C., the earthen vessel that contained the House of God was shattered. The Northern Israelite vessel, by the way was empty—chose to be empty—when it decided to distinguish itself apart from the rule of the house of David and adopt a culture to counter that which God had established for them. This same rebel nation blended into the mesh of exiles dragged away by the Assyrians and evaporated into oblivion when their conquering empire was trampled by the Babylonians. The Southern Kingdom of Judah, however, retained some traces of Godliness that God can hold on to—take note the mercy of God: “that God can hold on to”—to keep this nation from totally decaying like their Northern brethren. Like the Egyptian king who welcomed Joseph into the royal circle, Nebuchadnezzar and his successors treated their captive Israelites with a considerable measure of kindness and give the Israelites their dignity, except their land, back. But no matter, it was new and unusual kind of dignity, the kind noted in Exodus 21:5 to 6 as the servant who loved his master. In this, the Israelites put themselves in a state of Diaspora, a state of voluntary exile.

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The root of Diaspora is traced back to the Babylonian Captivity. "Diaspora" is a Greek word that means dispersion. Until the deportation of Judah, the Israelites as a nation had experienced no exile, though it was a fear that the Lord had told them about should they disobey His commands and live not according to the lifestyle He prescribed:

“…if you do not obey the Lord your God and do not carefully follow all his commands and decrees…all these curses will come upon you and overtake you: The Lord will drive you and the king you set over you to the nation unknown to you or your fathers. There you will worship other gods, gods of wood and stone” (Deuteronomy 28:15,36).

In the succeeding verse, the condition of exile is made more unbearable as it brings back the humiliation of their ancestors who lived and died as slaves in Egypt:

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“You will become a thing of horror and an object of scorn and ridicule to all the nations where the Lord will drive you” (verse 37).

Moses painted a very precise and disturbing picture of the consequence of rebellion and disobedience. He made the people realize that when God sends His judgment, it would not be as pleasant and as relenting as they would be if it were they who were plundering a city. There would be no mercy, indicated Moses, for the time of mercy would be given at an indefinite length until it is over; and when it is over, it would then be too late.

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It was like urging a friend to stop smoking to save his life. Many smokers are sold to the idea that dying of old age or by accident makes no difference from dying of lung cancer; so they enjoy popping that cigarette stick every day of their lives. What they don’t know, however, is the excruciating pain that accompanies one in his descent into the grave. Lots of us have this naïve picture of dying that the victim just gloriously closes his eyes, drops his head gently to his side, then opens his eyes to the bright light of the afterlife. Well, if you’ve seen someone die of lung cancer our preconceived idea of dying is nothing but a pile of bovine manure. As a child of twelve, I have witnessed with my own eyes how my father died of lung cancer. It was not pleasant. There was no glory in it. We understand death; we understand that it comes to everyone, smoker or nonsmoker. But it’s about time we also started understanding that there’s a whole lot of difference between dying in peace and getting the life ground out of us slowly and convulsed in pain. 

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“Just as it pleased the Lord to make you prosper and increase in number, so it will please him to ruin and destroy you. You will be uprooted from the land you are entering to possess. Then the Lord will scatter you among all nations, from one end of the earth to the other. There you will worship other gods—gods of wood and stone, which neither you nor your fathers have known. Among those nations you will find no repose, no resting place for the sole of your foot. There the Lord will give you an anxious mind, eyes weary with longing, and a despairing heart. You will live in constant suspense, filled with dread both night and day, never sure of your life. The Lord will send you back in ships to Egypt on a journey I said you should never make again. There you will offer yourselves for sale to your enemies as male and female slaves, but no one will buy you” (Exodus 28:63–66, 68).

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When Judah fell in defeat in 586 B.C., not only were the words of the prophets ringing in the people’s ears but also the Mosaic warning on disobedience was being proven true to the letter. God did bring a nation against them from far away, from the ends of the earth, like an eagle swooping down, a nation of a strange language (verse 49). It did lay siege to Jerusalem until it fell (verse 52).

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But the days of captivity came with its own device that sugar-coated the bitterness of spiritual loneliness of being isolated from the lifestyle that made the Israelites close to God. Babylonia offered an opportunity for its captives to be productive, to learn its ways, to contribute to the Babylonian society, to be a people of their own identity except hold national borders. The Israelites accepted the Babylonian kindness; we put the Babylonian offer as “kindness” based on the account on how Evil-Merodach treated King Jehoiachin in the Israelite monarch’s thirty-seventh year of exile:

“Evil-Merodach…released Jehoiachin from prison…. He spoke kindly to him and gave him a seat of honor higher than those of the other kings who were with him in Babylon. So Jehoiachin put aside his prison clothes and for the rest of his life ate regularly at the king’s table. Day by day the king gave Jehoiachin a regular allowance as long as he lived” (2 Kings 25:27–30).

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From the days of Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian soul reserved a fondness for the exotic with the capital city becoming a catch basin of the many cultures of its conquered peoples. But instead of being a mélange of a little bit of this culture and that, the Babylonian personality was already hammered from its early years under Hammurabi in the eighteenth century B.C. and the new prominent natives, whom the Israelites and the Greeks identified as Chaldeans, struggled to keep the old fires of tradition alive. But alas, the best that this new Babylonian Empire could revive are the trappings of formality, a renascence of the form without its living substance. In spite therefore of all the towering buildings, shiny marbled public courtyards, sparkling monuments, and rising ziggurats, the ashes of a dead aimless religion blew across the empire desperately collected by the Chaldeans into their urns of withered pride. In this land of the living dead, who would have guessed that life would emerge for the Israelites in a chance to be themselves again and call this land their home away from home?

The Israelite learned the Babylonian ways of refinement and grace; he learned language without unlearning and unloving his Hebrew heritage. He was given the freedom to live peaceably, be productive by utilizing his talent and skill in a strange society that gave him a place alongside its native citizen. Unlike in Egypt where he was seen as nothing more than a slave, Babylon dressed him up as one of them, educated him as one of them, gave him a name that made things easy for him to function, do business, and, yes, to make friends, in the new society. The Empire where walked people from different lands gave the Israelite the dignity to be who he was and be who he wanted to be, all to build and reinforce the power and spirit of the new Babylonia, for which he was deported. And build the Empire he did. The wide and complex trade routes made him into a man of commerce and business, and with talented effort he pumped financial power into the kingdom to uplift the Babylonian standard of living into stellar heights. Through this, the Israelite fortified himself, built himself erect with wealth as he built the wealth of the kingdom, and his renown spread in this foreign land. Thus, out of the dust of captivity emerged the Israelite aristocracy.

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The Israelite donning himself with Babylonian trappings and getting rich with Babylonian money was actually him doing a favor for the Babylonians. Forget not that it was for this condition that he was kept alive when the Mesopotamians swooped down into the holy kingdom and carried him away. Nebuchadnezzar saw this Israelite fit enough, intelligent enough, adaptable enough to work for him and his kingdom. So when the rewards of the favor began descending, some of the successful Israelites decided to plant themselves in the land of their newfound wealth.

But there was also a favor the Israelite did for himself. In spite of the wealth, in spite of the welcome, two things that defined him remained a distant star: the land of God’s Promise and the Temple, the center where God and he met. The first one was set to be fulfilled, but that was as far as the prophecy of Daniel was concerned; and until a return to Jerusalem comes to pass, the second one will never materialize. And deducing from the sentiments among the Israelites during that time, the prospects of going home was just a specter born either out of physical nourishment or night shades playing tricks to the eyes. In addition to this, the rising aristocracy among the Israelites were abandoning the idea of returning to Jerusalem. Hope was dwindling.

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Not all people wanted to stay in Babylon. Those who found little or no luck in harnessing the opportunities of Babylonia longed for the security of their real home. Of course, there were also the successful who viewed their wealth futile when not invested in rebuilding their land and culture.

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That was the bad news. The good news for those wanting to go home was that though the prospects of repatriation were nowhere in sight, there was a way to keep their hopes up and find comfort in the words of the Torah and the Prophets who supported the Torah. Because Israelites were scattered in communities throughout the empire, each was told to designate a place where the members could gather in prayer and the study of God’s word. It was called a synagogue, an invention that addressed the Israelite’s desire to seek God’s face in repentance for the ultimate restoration of Jerusalem.

The synagogue became the symbol of the new look of Judaism as it adapted to the conditions of the Babylonian captivity. It was the Israelite tugging at the hem of God’s garment in repentance, responding to the commitment God had made in 2 Chronicles 7:14—

“if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”

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The libraries of Babylon instilled in the Israelite a keen creative spirit to face his limitations in a new perspective. It was a given that the Temple religion was tied to the land which the Israelite was dispossessed of. Without the land God had given him as an inheritance, there could be no Temple, even if the Babylonian government would allow him to rebuild it in their land between the Tigris and the Euphrates. What he could do was to seek God with all his heart. In this, the Israelite’s intention to do what was right became his greatest tool. Without the devices prescribed in Mosaic-Aaronic worship, he had to make use of his own humbled and contrite conscience to find his way back home, this time guided by the ideas supplied by the Prophets. What resulted was an ultimate experience that liberated him from the obligation of any priesthood or country. He aimed straight at the heart of the matter letting past the religious trappings and symbols to discover the real meaning of devotion, love, and sacrifice and how they all mesh together in God’s will. Instead of bulls and lambs roasted on a fiery altar, the Israelite offered up praise and prayers in ideally the same way King David poured his soul out to the Lord every morning (Psalm 5:3; 59:16) and meditated on Him at night (16:7; 17:3; 22:2; 42:8; 63:3; 77:2,6; 119:55). It was an attitude Jesus later alluded to in one of His parables in Matthew 13:45 to 46:

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.”

While some successful Israelites made headlines with their wellsprings of wealth and no longer found any reason to return to Jerusalem, Jesus cited those who knew what was more important, those whose heart serenaded the mercy of God with a sincerity and hunger for a move of His mighty Spirit. When Jesus taught about storing treasures, He was merely stating a fact seen in human nature:

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:19–21).

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It was a fact that changed the priority of the Israelite who once wept by the rivers of Babylon when he remembered Zion. When he found the chance to reach for the substantial promises of Babylon, the treasures that Jesus considered as easily corrupted corrupted Mr. Wealthy Israelite, beginning and manifested in his desire to return to Jerusalem—the measuring stick of genuine repentance.

To those who sought the will of God, to those who wanted to go back, prayer became the universal symbol of devotion to God in this foreign land. Jesus, again, may have referred to those who longed for God’s move to restore the fortunes of Israel when He taught His famous Beatitudes to His disciples:

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“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3–10).

To those who chose to remain with their riches, however, Jesus had this to say:

“But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for that is how their fathers treated the false prophets” (Luke 6:24–26).

Alongside prayer, an ardent effort and excitement to search for God in the Holy Scriptures was rising; and for the first time, the words of the Prophets were being studied as the Torah was being rediscovered. This renaissance can somehow be likened to the time of King Josiah around the mid-seventh century B.C. when his priests accidentally dug up the Book of Deuteronomy. And in very much the same way, the Scriptures were seen in the lens of repentance and a return to the “ancient paths,” as the Prophet Jeremiah called the ways taught by the Lord to His people. But though the Jewish heart left traces of its fingerprints all over the scrolls, there was something strangely Babylonian in the way the Word of Truth was divided. An explanation for this lies in the tendency a culture develops in a Diaspora. According to Jewish historian Max I. Dimont (1912–1992), it was doubtless that the Babylonian captivity produced new Jewish cultures (Jews, God and History, page 124); but though the core of these cultures remained distinctly Jewish, “each took on the dominant trait of the host civilization” (Ibid.). “When a civilization was philosophic,” Mr. Dimont continued to explain, “the Jews became philosophers” (Ibid.). By the time the Jews were flourishing in captivity, Babylonia was a center of learning and philosophy; and it was this learning and philosophy the Jews absorbed to approach their spiritual dilemma.

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Through philosophy, Jewish scholars learned how to generalize; and through generalization, concepts were simplified. Thus, simplicity marked this new religious renovation. Jesus, about five hundred years down the road, seemed to remind the generation of His time of what it was like when the faithful in Babylon streamlined devotion. From “lengthy prayers” (Mark 12:40, Luke 20:47), Jesus showed His disciples the beauty and accuracy of one sincere and unembellished with “many words” (Matthew 6:7):

“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one” (6:9–10).

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Simplicity was what the new Judaism was all about, and with it, Jesus and some of the Pharisees saw eye-to-eye on some points. There were times when Jesus silenced them with a direct answer born out of the doctrine of simplicity:

“…an expert in the law, tested him (Jesus) with this question: ‘Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?’ Jesus replied: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and the greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments’’” (Matthew 22:35–40).

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Jesus understood how the mind of this school of thought born in Babylon worked, for He too was all for simplicity. In the version the Book of Mark presents, “one of the teachers of the law” could not help containing his respect when he heard Jesus argue with the Sadducees. In the twenty-eighth verse of Chapter 12, the teacher noticed that Jesus had given them “a good answer,” propelling him to ask which of all the commandments was the most important one. In this account, the gospel author continues to record the response of delight from this teacher, even calling Jesus “teacher” in verse 32. Let’s let the Scriptures speak:

“’Well said, teacher,’ the man replied. ‘You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.’ When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions” (Mark 12:32–34).

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Somewhere down the road, however, the Pharisaic doctrine got lost in the complications of its own weaving and Jesus was there to bring them back to their roots. In the incident when He healed a paralytic, commanding him to “Get up and walk” (Matthew 9:5), and pronounced forgiveness for his sins, Jesus slapped simplicity on some of the teachers of the law who were present:

“Which is easier: to say, ‘You sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’?” (verse 5, emphasis mine)

Now that is some bed! And looks like Jesus was taken aback when the guy suddenly does a superman! "Piece o' cake, Lord! Thanks!"

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Back to Babylon. For prayer and the study of God’s word, there was a place designated for the Israelites in a community to gather; it was called a synagogue. Now the term merely covered one purpose of the place: to gather. To the Jew, however, it was a house of prayer as he called it Beth Tephila; a house of study, Beth Hamidrash; and a house of assembly, Beth Haknesseth. From the final term we can glean the root by which the present Israeli parliament is named after: the Knesseth [Max I Dimont, Jews, God and History (Mentor: New York, 1994; p.75].

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The synagogue became an instant success. As soon as the guidelines were drawn, the Jews of the captivity almost immediately founded synagogues in every city of the Babylonian Empire. It became the social center where the Jews of a city congregated every week. Through the synagogue, the Jewish community of a locality was effectively supervised to follow the Law. Through the synagogue the children were properly raised in the ancestral faith. Through the synagogue the Jewish faith was restructured, rebuilt with reinforced walls against the corroding influences of Babylon compounded by the restless and careless curiosities of various human stages. About five hundred years later, it would be through the synagogue where Jesus would begin His preaching ministry (Matthew 4:23; Mark 1:21–22, verse 39; Luke 4:15,16,20) and frequented thereafter if He was not conducting one of His open-air crusades (Matthew 9:35; 13:54; Luke 4:44; John 6:59; 18:20). The synagogue would also witness its share of His ministry of deliverance (Matthew 9:18; 12:9–13; Mark 1:23–2, verse 39; Mark 3:1,5; Luke 4:33; 8:41,49; 13:10–13). After Jesus ascended into Heaven, certain followers of His continued to see the synagogue as among the best venues to reach the lost sheep of Israel. Standing up for Christ in a synagogue was risky, as seen in the story Stephen the Deacon and the madness stirred by the members of the Synagogue of the Freedman(Acts 6:8–10); and, of course, there was Paul who made it customary to share Christ in the synagogue (Acts 17:2) from the time God restored his sight after his experience on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:20), sometimes accompanied by Barnabas (Acts 13:5,14,15,42; 14:1), or Silas (Acts 17:10), or sometimes he’d do it on his own (Acts 18:4).

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About three thousand years ago, the Israelite Kingdom, the nation God chose to be a vessel to contain His House, fractured into two pieces. It could have shattered right there and then if not for His mercy, His constant reaching out to the Jehovah in the people’s conscience, and their response to turn from sin and return to Him, albeit at few and intermittent times. The first piece deliberately doomed itself to judgment and was pounded into fine dust; it took to the winds and was gone forever. The second piece was preserved and deported to a land God chose to be its vessel that His people would be sheltered and cared for as they considered their faults and repented of their ways. In their yearning to do what was right, they devoted themselves to the lessons of the prophets, and in their repentance they restored themselves to their old ways but in a slightly new likeness—a new Judaism that took on the shape of their Babylonian vessel. This new image of an ancient spirit became the vessel that contained God’s new wine. In this concept can we find an application of Jesus’ illustration of the “new wineskins”:

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“No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse. Neither do men pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved” (Matthew 9:16–17).

By the time Jesus began His earthly ministry, the synagogue was already five hundred years old, ripe in its age to contain the new move of God that was Jesus and be taken along the new a-borning road of Christianity. His frequent target was the synagogues as He brought His goodness to where the people were. In these He preached, healed, rebuked demons away, and forgave sins. But though many of the synagogues loved His words and deeds, a number were hostile against Him, beginning with the one in Nazareth whose members drove Him out to a nearby cliff to push Him off (Luke 4:28–29). It was in the synagogue of Capernaum where occurred the great falling away of His followers after hearing Him teach about “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood…will live because of me” (John 6:56–57). Notice in these instances that so long as Jesus kept His Divinity hidden in His teachings everyone in the group enjoyed His presence. But when He began establishing a straight line between Himself and the Messiah prophesied by Isaiah, the people began to be filled with wrath. The synagogue proved its inflexibility and therefore its inability to contain the new wine of God when it finally chose the favor and manipulation of the Pharisees. In John 12:42, it says that “many even among the leaders [of the synagogues] believed in him (Jesus). But because of the Pharisees they would not confess their faith for fear they would be put out of the synagogue.” It was a bastion of rabbinical control and disbelief. In Acts 7:57–60, one called the Synagogue of the Freeman declared its support for the rabbis by murdering the Christian deacon Stephen, a Greek Jew like themselves. Let it be said that the establishment of the synagogue was not to insulate the people from God’s will. On the contrary, the simplicity of its doctrine had the potential to instill a greater expectation in people’s hearts for the Messiah. Somewhere along the road, legalism, nationalism, even Hellenism came into the picture and cluttered the focus. 

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The existence of the synagogue became the barometer of the strength of the Jewish will to survive. In times of trouble, they stood strong in the expressed hope of assembly, study, and prayer that one day, the Savior would appear and deliver His people from oppression. And He did appear and come in their midst doing good, finally offering the helping hand they had been hoping for. There were those who believed, those whom He later referred to as the sheep (Matthew 25:22 and 23); and those who did not, whom He spoke of as the goats (Ibid.), those whom in the Day of Judgment He will not acknowledge: 

Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” (Matthew 7:21–23)

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When the time came for the Apostles to take over where Jesus left off, the synagogue made it very easy for the Jews, now dispersed throughout the Roman Empire, to be located. The Book of Acts accounts that there were more numerous conversions of Jews into Christianity than there were resistance. Nonetheless, history would not see the synagogue awarded to Christianity. In the same way as the synagogue respected the Temple when Palestine was resettled after the Babylonian Captivity, the Christians would establish their own house of prayer, study, and assembly, the format of which from core to trappings, would be heavily derived the Jewish synagogue.
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While the Church would gain strength in the centuries to come so would the Jewish synagogue. While the Church would stand for the Christian power to advance, the synagogue religion would be the single guiding star that would keep the Jewish identity above corruption in the centuries of dispersion.

When the Babylonian Empire of a wineskin aged and met its end in 538 B.C., the new wine of Judaism was poured into the new wineskin of the Persian Empire. Contrary to what some historians say, the transfer of power into the hands of its new master was relatively peaceful and in peace, this new master poured God’s people back into the land of their peace.

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When the Babylonian Empire met its end in 538 B.C., it fell as a trophy in the hands of a man whose rise seemed to have been forged by the hand of destiny itself. According to the words of the Great King Cyrus himself, known to us better as Cyrus the Great, he entered Babylon without a fight. Historical facts imply that he experienced little opposition from the Chaldeans, these people having joined forces with the Medes in the destruction of Assyria, particularly in 612 B.C. when they formed a powerful allied assault, along with the Scythians, in destroying Nineveh. With the incorporation of Babylonia, Cyrus' Medo-Persian Empire became the greatest the world had yet seen. It was just fitting that Daniel's prophetic vision would depict this new empire as a voracious bear that was told to "Get up and eat your fill of flesh" (Daniel 7:5)! Also known as the Achaemenid Empire, the prophetic bear raised by Cyrus the Great covered almost 3.5 million square miles, stretching from the borders of India in the east all the way to the Aegean Sea in the west.

Unlike the Babylonians, the Persians were latecomers in the race of culture bearers, the unlikeliest, and among the few most mysterious to ever secure the title of world superpower. When the Babylonians stood at the height of their power in the sixth century, the Persians were yet unheard of. Historians can only surmise that this Aryan people were the early Medes who lived in the northeast of Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylonian Empire. The Bible, however, already knew about the Persians years before their rise out of obscurity and into power. The Prophet Daniel twice envisioned the future world rulers, first as a great bear munching on three ribs (Daniel 7:5) and as a ram with one horn longer than the other (8:3). Yet a most amazing passage in the Bible prophesying about the rise of one “shepherd” and “anointed” of God named Cyrus appears in Isaiah 44:28 and 45:1, spoken about a hundred years before his birth:

“who says of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd and will accomplish all that I please; he will say of Jerusalem, “Let it be rebuilt,” and of the temple, “Let its foundations be laid.”’ This is what the Lord says to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I take hold of to subdue nations before him and strip kings of their armor….”

It was as if the emergence of Cyrus the Great was for the single purpose of sending the Jews home. As far as we Bible readers are concerned, all the other accomplishments of the Persian empire paled in just this one success; and probably because of this just one obedience to God’s mandate, or expectation, the Persians were not forgotten in the coming opportunity to declare the advent of God’s kingdom. In the Second Chapter of Matthew, “Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked. ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?’"

Now, only one place comes to mind when we say “magi”: Persia. The word is the plural form of where we ultimately get the term “magic.” They were the priests of Zoroastrianism, the Persian religion. Their learning was connected with astrology and enchantment, in which they became so renown that to this day that their title was applied to the orders of magicians and enchanters. The practice of magic became popular in the centuries leading up to Jesus’ birth when Mithraism, a fragment of Zoroastrianism, and the Egyptian worship of Isis were taken to the West and marketed as alternatives to the state religions of Greece and Rome.

Picture courtesy of Baldur's Gate II: Shadow of Amn
One of the greatest contributions of the Mesopotamian civilizations was their belief in astrology which later transformed into the scientific study of astronomy. Egypt, on the other hand, was celebrated as a cradle of magic. Remember how the Egyptian priests tried to copy, with some measure of success, the miracles Moses performed before the pharaoh? “The finger of God,” however, prevailed as He later surpassed the capabilities of their magic tricks. But magic did not die when the gates closed behind the departing Israelites, and it has time and Hellenization to thank for that as it opened and cultivated the western mind to the novel and the exotic ideas of the Orient.

During the time of Jesus’ birth, the glory of the Persian Empire had already been reduced into a much inferior tapestry of its remnants ravaged after the conquests and dominance of Alexander the Great and his generals. But the spirit of its culture prevailed as it was allowed to live through the permissive policy of Hellenization. Zoroastrianism, therefore, was welcomed to come to the discussion table and reason with the cerebral Greeks. The highways that carried commerce were even broadened and lengthened, as they reached to the borders of India, to accommodate religious and cultural exchange. Because of this, Zoroastrianism found its way to some parts of the world unified by Hellenization, in places as far as Greece, Asia Minor, and even Palestine.

But even the Jews somehow contributed to the Persian civilization before they departed for their homeland in 538 B.C. when they were allowed to rebuild their nation. Notice that in the passage in Matthew 2:2 that the Magi knew about the “king of the Jews” and His birth and His entitlement to be worshiped; and through their arcane system, they knew this ahead of the Jewish authorities themselves who merely knew “where the Christ was to be born” (verse 5). After this, the Magi would not be heard from again. They would slip out the backdoor and forget about returning to King Herod and informing him where the Christ child would be found. This decision, however, would cause a panic in Bethlehem as Herod would order to kill all the boys in the vicinity who were two years old or under (verse 16), fulfilling the prophecy spoken by Jeremiah hundreds of years before in Jeremiah 31:15. On the day of Jesus’ trial, the words of the Magi would occur once again, though not to anyone’s recollection—save Herod’s.

When Jesus was sent into the Praetorium to be tortured by the Roman soldiers, He was clothed with a scarlet robe, crowned with a wreath of thorns, given a staff in His right hand and mocked, “Hail King of the Jews” (Matthew 27:29). Then by the time of His crucifixion, an inscription was hung above Him that wrote: “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews” (verse 37).

If there was something about the Persian Empire, it had a great deal to do with prophecy. The Prophet Isaiah predicted the rise of its greatest king, Cyrus the Great, a man who was pronounced to be God’s shepherd (Isaiah 45:28). He would also be foretold that by him Jerusalem and its Temple would be rebuilt (Ibid.). The physical dimensions of his kingdom was also prophesied to shock the world of its time that the Prophet Daniel would see it as a mighty bear masticating on three ribs and even encouraged to "Get up and eat your fill of flesh" (Daniel 7:5)! On a general scale, we envision the Persian Empire as a benevolent empire that did good with the least violations to human rights. The last passage we have, however, shows how ruthless it was. Spiritually, it was ruled by a spirit called “the prince of Persia” (verse 13 King James Version), a being so powerful that it resisted God’s angelic messenger for twenty one days that the Archangel Michael had to intervene for the messenger to fulfill his mission. On one hand, the Persian Empire brought life to a dead land in Palestine, but also brought death later on the other hand. In the New Testament, the Persian Magi appeared as a spiritual herald that warned of death: to the children of Rachel in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:18) and to Jesus.

Picture source:
 Honestly, guys. But remember the old DOS game? Just can't figure out how I finished the game without any cheats! Playing it again now, I just can't figure out how to finish the game without them cheats!

© Alfredo Dagli Orti/The Art Archive/Corbis
Even Cyrus’ birth also echoed with the prophecy of his people. According to the legend told by Herodotus, Cyrus’ grandfather, the Median king Astyages, became so alarmed after a dream that seemed to portend that his grandson should be master of Asia. Committing the child to his noble Harpagus to kill it, Harpagus instead preserved Cyrus’ life by delivering it to a shepherd’s wife to be reared. Ten years later, knowing the truth, Cyrus reappears in the royal court and shows proof of his descent. His presence gathers the support of the Magi and the tribesmen of his father, the Persians. With their help, he usurps the throne in 559 B.C., defeats and takes Astyages prisoner. The Medes accept Cyrus’ supremacy, ironing his might to forge a mighty empire the world had yet seen. On his last campaign against the Massagetae, a Scythian people of Central Asia, he was defeated and slain in battle in 529 B.C. Tomyris, the matriarchal leader of the Massagetae, severed Cyrus’ head and plunged it into a bag filled with human blood that he might satiate himself with blood.

© Byron Purvis AdMedia ./Retna Ltd./Corbis
Guys, no. Before "I just don't think you understand," get over the Cyrus, we're done here. 

© Armando Gallo/Retna Ltd./Corbis

Okay, that's it! I'm declaring a Cyrus attack! Love their songs, by the way. Hey, it's a countdown, what can I say?

1 comment:

  1. It is a vivid indication, Israel bearing heavenly heritage and immediately its neighbors as occultic in beliefs. The divine on earth is a magnet of resistance by its antithesis.