Love your neighbor

Christian living goes against the grain of our natural human tendencies. Jesus taught his disciples to love their enemies and said, “bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:44-45, NKJV). Paul expanded on this teaching by instructing Christians to “Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men” (Romans 12:17, NKJV). By this Paul meant that “Christian conduct should never betray the high moral standards of the gospel, or it will provoke the disdain of unbelievers and bring the gospel into disrepute” (note on Romans 12:17). Paul concluded his argument by stating, “Therefore ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head” (Romans 12:20, NKJV).

Paul made it clear that the goal of Christian living is to conquer evil by doing good to those that don’t deserve it (Romans 12:21). One of the ways that Paul suggested we can do this is by submitting to the authorities that exist because they are ordained by God (Romans 13:1). This was particularly relevant to the first century Roman Christians because they were constantly being harassed because of their faith in Christ. The Roman emperors used their power to unjustly punish Christians and are known for burning them alive and letting wild animals tear them to pieces. “Even the possibility of a persecuting state did not shake Paul’ conviction that civil government is ordained by God (note on Romans 13:1). Paul stated, For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil” (Romans 13:3).

Paul summarized his argument in favor of submission to authority by stating that we should, “Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Romans 13:8, NKJV). Paul compared the Christian’s responsibility to love others to a debt that can never be repaid. “No matter how much one has loved, he is under obligation to keep on loving” (note on Romans 13:8). Paul went on to say, “For the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not bear false witness,’ ‘You shall not covet,’ and if there is any other commandment, are all summed up in this saying, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself'” (Romans 13:9, NKJV). The point Paul was trying to make was that loving our neighbor encompasses all of our Christian social responsibilities” (note on Romans 13:9) and therefore makes it impossible for Satan to condemn us.

Paul seemed to anticipate that things would get worse for Christians as the return of Christ got closer. He stated, ” The night is far spent, the day is at hand. Therefore let us cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light” (Romans 13:12, NKJV). The Greek word translated armor, hoplon was used by Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians where he stated, “For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds” (2 Corinthians 10:4). The weapons or armor that Paul was referring to was most likely submission to the will of God. Even though Christians may be mistreated because of their meekness and gentleness towards others, Satan cannot do any spiritual damage to our lives if we submit ourselves to the will of God (Ephesians 6:10),

Sheep in the midst of wolves

Jesus used the metaphor of sheep to describe God’s chosen people who had wandered away from him in their search for pleasure among the pagan nations that surrounded Israel. Jesus sent out his twelve apostles like laborers in a field and instructed them, “Go not into the way of the Gentiles, and into any city of the Samaritans enter ye not: but go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10:5-6). In depicting God’s people as lost sheep, Jesus portrayed them as vulnerable, fearful creatures that were unable to find their own way back home again. There was no judgment or harsh criticism in Jesus’ viewpoint of the situation, only a concerned attitude toward the people that were voluntarily living their lives separated from the God that wanted to save them. The Greek word translated lost, apollumi means to destroy fully (622) and is therefore, referring to a spiritual condition rather than a physical one. What Jesus was implying was that the Israelites were on their way to hell and needed to be rescued from Satan’s grip on them.

Before he sent them out, Jesus told his twelve apostles, “Behold I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves” (Matthew 10:16). In comparing the Israelites’ spiritual enemies to wolves, Jesus was suggesting that they would be difficult to detect among God’s children. One of the advantages wolves have over their prey is they can sneak into a flock undetected because they are about the same size and color as sheep. Jesus’ reversal of the roles, sheep in the midst of wolves, meant that he wanted his disciples to infiltrate the enemy’s camp, like a sheep walking into a pack of wolves, and work against them without being detected. Jesus’ instruction to be “wise as serpents and harmless as doves” meant that he didn’t want any harm to come to the lost sheep of Israel that were being held captive by the false teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees that dominated the religious culture at that time.

Jesus warned his disciples of the danger they would face in taking his gospel into enemy territory, but also encouraged them to act fearlessly, because God would protect them (Matthew 10:31). Focusing particularly on the Pharisees who had accused him of casting out demons by the power of Satan (Matthew 12:24), Jesus said, “Fear them not therefore: for there is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed; and hid that shall not be known” (Matthew 10:26). In other words, the teaching of the Pharisees would be exposed as false doctrine by the truth of the gospel. All the disciples had to do was tell God’s people the truth and they would realize on their own that the Pharisees had been lying to them. Likening God’s word to a sword, (Matthew 10:34), Jesus explained that telling people the truth would result in spiritual warfare, but conflict was necessary for the kingdom of heaven to be established on earth. He said, “For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household” (Matthew 10:35-36).

Opposition

There were two types of opposition that caused interruptions to the Jews work of rebuilding the wall around Jerusalem, internal and external opposition. After the work had started, a group of men showed up that were determined to keep the Jews from making progress. Nehemiah recorded, “But when Sanballat the Horonite, and Tobiah the servant, the Ammonite, and Geshem the Arabian, heard it, they laughed us to scorn, and despised us, and said, What is this thing that ye do? will ye rebel against the king?” (Nehemiah 2:19). The continual mocking that took place at their worksite was a type of external opposition that reminded the Jews of the ridicule they could expect if they dared to be different from the people around them. Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem represented dominant cultures that had previously enticed God’s people to reject him. When these influential men heard that the Jews were trying to start over and intended to obey God’s commandments, they did everything they could to put a stop to it.

In spite of the external opposition they faced, the Jews were able to complete the first half of their assignment, but afterwards, they were threatened with a military attack. Nehemiah stated, “And our adversaries said, They shall not know, neither see, till we come in the midst among them, and slay them, and cause the work to cease” (Nehemiah 3:11). Nehemiah’s response was to arm the people and get them back to work as quickly as possible (Nehemiah 3:13, 15). Surprisingly, the threat of being attacked didn’t make the Jews want to quit, but Nehemiah knew his crew needed to be guarded or their lives could be in danger, so he armed them with weapons. It says in Nehemiah 4:16-18:

And it came to pass from that time forth, that the half of my servants wrought in the work, and the other half of them held both, the spears, the shields, and the bows, and the habergeons; and the rulers were behind all the house of Judah. They which builded on the wall, and they that bare burdens, with those that laded, every one with one of his hands wrought in the work, and with the other hand held a weapon. For the builders, every one had his sword girded by his side, and so builded. And he that sounded the trumpet was by me.

As soon as Nehemiah got the situation with his external opposition under control, an internal conflict broke out. Some of the Jews were upset because their children were being forced into slavery because they were too poor to pay the interest on their debt to the Jewish nobles and rulers (Nehemiah 4:1-4). Nehemiah said, “And I was very angry when I heard their cry and these words. Then I consulted with myself, and I rebuked the nobles, and the rulers, and said unto them, You exact usury, every one of his brother. And I set a great assembly against them” (Nehemiah 4:6-7). Nehemiah’s approach to the internal opposition he faced was to take upon himself the responsibility that would normally be expected of a king. The Hebrew phrase Nehemiah used that is translated, “I consulted with myself” could be interpreted as, I put myself in a position of authority, or I took responsibility for the people’s circumstances. When he said he rebuked the nobles, and the rulers and set a great assembly against them, Nehemiah was implying he challenged their leadership openly, as if these men were being put on trial.

Nehemiah was the type of leader that led by example. He didn’t separate himself from the common people, nor did he expect special treatment. One of the things Nehemiah was entitled to as Artaxerxes’ governor of Judah was a daily ration of food. Nehemiah didn’t take this portion from the people as other governors had, but provided regular meals for more than 150 persons out of his own resources. Nehemiah’s explanation for his behavior was  a fear of God and “because the bondage was heavy upon this people” (Nehemiah 4:15, 18). Nehemiah’s motive for overcoming the external and internal opposition he faced seemed to be to protect his reputation with God. Nehemiah appeared to care what God thought of his behavior more than anything else. He prayed to the LORD, “Think upon me, my God, for good, according to all that I have done for this people” (Nehemiah 4:19).

Rest

God designed the world to operate in a state of perpetual motion. The fact that the earth rotates at an approximate speed of 1000 miles per hour on a continual basis demonstrates that humans are wired for activity, but there is also an innate need for us to rest. The example God gave us in his work of creation was six days of activity followed by one day of rest. It says in Genesis 2:3, “And God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it because that in it he had rested from all his work which God created and made.” The Hebrew word translated rest, shabath (shaw – bath´) is where the word Sabbath or the concept of a day of rest comes from (7673). God intended rest to be a part of our lives, but very few people understand why it is important.

God did not need to rest after he created the world. The purpose of his rest was to acknowledge the completion of his work, to see that it was finished. The process of ending is important because it shows us that it is possible to complete something from a standpoint of perfection. In fact, the Hebrew word translated perfect, tamiym means complete (8589). When Abraham was 99 years old, the LORD appeared to him and said, “I am the Almighty God; walk before me, and be thou perfect” (Genesis 17:1). In other words, God was saying he wanted to bring Abraham to a place of rest or his life to a point of completion. Closely related to the idea of completion is purpose or destiny. When we walk before the LORD, we arrive at the destination he has predetermined to be our place of rest, our perfect ending.

When the Israelites entered the Promised Land, God wanted them to enter into his rest, which means he wanted them to end up at the same place he was. You could say that God’s temple was his house or his place of residence, but it was really just a marker for the entrance of his Messiah into the world. In order to ensure that his birth would occur and not be overlooked by his chosen people, God designated a specific location for his Messiah to be born. In a sense, you could say that location was God’s place of rest,  but technically it was Jesus birth, and subsequent death, that marked completion of God’s work of salvation. When Jesus died on the cross, he said, “It is finished” (John 19:30).

There was really only one requirement for the Israelites’ Messiah to be born. God’s people had to occupy the territory he had designated for an inheritance to Abraham and his descendants. The problem was that the Promised Land was inhabited by other people and the Israelites couldn’t get rid of them. The ongoing battle between Israel and its surrounding neighbors continued until the Israelites were taken into captivity by the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar. After they were released from captivity, the Israelites were reluctant to return to their homeland because they feared being overtaken again. The Jews were dispersed throughout the Persian Empire when Esther became queen. After Haman the Agagite’s plot to kill all of God’s people was uncovered and stopped, it says in Esther 9:16 that the Jews had rest from their enemies.

The defeat of Haman brought rest or completion to the Jews because his death fulfilled the last Old Testament commandment as well as prophecy related to the Israelites’ occupation of the Promised Land before the Messiah’s birth. It says in Deuteronomy 25:17-19, “Remember what Amalek did unto thee by the way, when ye were come forth out of Egypt; how he met thee by the way, and smote the hindmost of thee, even all that were feeble behind thee, when thou wast faint and weary; and he feared not God. Therefore it shall be, when the LORD thy God hath given thee rest from all thine enemies round about, in the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee for an inheritance to possess it, that thou shalt blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; thou shalt not forget it.”

No turning back

The Persian Empire stretched from Ethiopia to India and consisted of one hundred twenty seven provinces with varied languages and customs. One of the ways the king of Persia managed communication in his kingdom was to make his laws irrevocable. Once a decree was sent out, there was no turning back. In order to avoid any confusion or mistrust among his magistrates, the king could not repeal a law once it was established. This meant that Haman the Agagites’s order to kill all the Jews would still be carried out even though he had been hanged on the gallows he had built for Esther’s uncle, Mordecai.

King Ahasuerus’ remedy for the situation was to allow the Jews to defend themselves.  It says in Esther 8:11, “Whereas the king granted the Jews which were in every city to gather themselves together, and to stand for their life, to destroy, to slay, and to cause to perish, all the power of the people and providence that would assault them, both the little ones and women, and to take the spoil of them for a prey.” It might seem like self-defense was a natural solution to their problem, but the Jews status (exiled) in the kingdom of Persia prevented them from fighting against their captors.

An unintended, but advantageous outcome of the Jews obtaining permission to fight against the people that wanted to kill them was the destruction of the Amalekites. God had commanded Israel’s king, Saul to utterly destroy the people of Amalek hundreds of years earlier (1 Samuel 15:3), but Saul disobeyed and let some of the household of Agag, the king of Amalek, escape. Due to his mistake, Haman the Agagite was able to threaten the Jews existence. But, after the tables were turned, the Jews finally accomplished a long overdue objective, the elimination of their fiercest enemy.

 

Troublemakers

Reconstruction of the temple in Jerusalem was not a quick or easy task. The original temple that was built by king Solomon took seven years to construct (1 Kings 7:38). Ezra recorded that construction of the second temple was started in 536 B.C., but not completed until 516 B.C. (Ezra 6:15). The primary reason for the delay was the harassment the builders received from troublemakers living in the area surrounding Jerusalem. Ezra stated, “Then the people of the land weakened the hands of the people of Judah, and troubled them in building, and hired counsellers against them to frustrate the purpose, all the days of Cyrus king of Persia, even until the reign of Darius king of Persia” (Ezra 4:4-5). The phrases “weakened the hands of the people” and “troubled them in building” may also be translated as discouraged them and made them afraid to build (ESV). The idea being that the people were unproductive because of the harassment they received.

At the very least, the builders of the temple were distracted by the troublemakers that wanted to join with them in their effort (Ezra 4:2). One of the tactics used against the temple builders was what we might refer to today as tattle telling. A report was sent to king Darius, the successor to Cyrus king of Persia, indicating that the people that had returned to Jerusalem from captivity in Babylon were trying to rebuild their temple. They said, “Be it known to the king that we went into the province of Judea, to the house of the great God, which is builded with great stones, and timber is laid in the walls, and this work goeth fast on, and prospereth in their hands…and yet it is not finished” (Ezra 5:8,16). The troublemakers went on to say that they were told by the leaders in Jerusalem that Cyrus had made a decree to build the house of God and they wanted the records to be searched to find out if that was actually true (Ezra 5:13,17). Fortunately, king Darius ordered a search of the records and Cyrus’ decree was found (Ezra 6:3).

In spite of the corroboration of their story, the leaders of Jerusalem continued to face opposition for another fifty plus years. After king Darius was replaced by king Ahasurerus in 486 B.C., another letter was sent with an accusation against the people of Judah and Jerusalem (Ezra 4:7). Then, sometime during the reign of king Artaxerxes (465 B.C. – 424 B.C), a final attempt was made to stop the work in Jerusalem. The letter to Artaxerxes went to greater lengths by suggesting that a plot to overthrow his kingdom was in progress (Ezra 4:11-16). As a result of their intervention, Artaxeres I ordered that the Jews stop rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem (Nehemiah 1:3) until around 445 B.C. when Nehemiah came to Jerusalem and successful rebuilt the walls in fifty two days.

Enemies

The enemies of the Israelites were primarily neighbors that lived in close proximity to the Promised Land. Initially, when the Israelites entered the Promised Land, they were instructed to drive out the inhabitants of the land that had no right to possess territory God had given to Abraham and his descendants. Due to disobedience and a lack of faith, the area where the Israelites dwelt was cohabitated by other relatives of Abraham, specifically, Lot’s sons Ammon and Moab and the descendants of Jacob’s brother Esau. Over time, wars between Israel and the surrounding nations became an ongoing pattern. Eventually, the Israelites stopped trying to separate themselves from the people that hated them.

Ezekiel received four prophetic messages concerning enemies of Israel that God intended to deal with in his judgment of the land. His first message was directed at Ammon to whom God said, “Because thou sadist, Aha, against my sanctuary, when it was profaned; and against the land of Israel, when it was desolate; and against the house of Judah, when they went into captivity…Behold therefore, I will stretch out mine hand upon thee, and will deliver thee for a spoil to the heathen; and I will cut thee off from the people, and I will cause thee to perish out of the countries: I will destroy thee; and thou shalt know that I am the LORD” (Ezekiel 25:3,7). The term “aha” can express surprise or grief, but in this instance, it most likely was meant as an expression of delight that the Israelites had gotten what they deserved.

Among Israel’s enemies was a group of people known as the Philistines. The Philistines occupied territory on the western coast of Israel and were notorious for allowing other conquering nations to access Jerusalem and Judah through their strongholds in the mountains. In particular, when the Assyrians came against Jerusalem, they came through the Philistine cities of Ashdod and Gath, straight toward the capital of Judah (Sennacherib’s Campaign Against Judah, 701 B.C.). In his prophecy against Philistia, Ezekiel foretold, “Thus saith the Lord GOD; Because the Philistines have dealt by revenge, and have taken vengeance with a despiteful heart, to destroy it for the old hatred;  therefore thus saith the Lord GOD; Behold, I will stretch out mine hand upon the Philistines, and I will cut off the Cherethims, and destroy the remnant of the sea coast” (Ezekiel 25:15-16).

As Judah’s destruction approached, it was evident that God intended to wipe out not only the areas of the nation that were occupied by his people, but also all the territory that had originally been given them as an inheritance. In the prophet Micah’s counsel of despair, the people were told the situation was hopeless. He said, “The good man is perished out of the earth: and there is none upright among man…Trust ye not a friend, put ye not confidence in a guide: keep the doors of thy mouth from her that lieth in thy bosom. For son dishonoureth the father, the daughter riseth up against her mother, the daughter in law against her mother in law: a man’s enemies are the men of his own house” (Micah 7:2, 5-6).