Sunday, March 17, 2013

Why We Read Every Last Page

I'll admit I have my favorite passages, those stories from my childhood that I am drawn to because I can visualize them (usually with Charlton Heston playing the part of Moses).  Then, there are those verses and books that are difficult, the kind that make me run rough hands through unruly curls, rub my throbbing temples, and sigh at the ceiling.

When it comes to the pages of Scripture, we all have our favorite and our not-so-favorite chapter and verse.  My father loves Revelation and anything prophetic.  I, on the other hand, am a people person and cultural analyst at heart, so I prefer the histories found in the Kings and Chronicles.

Yet, even though we have our favorite passages, that doesn't mean we're excused from studying the entire Word of God, yes, even if we think some passages are "too hard" or not really pertinent to us since God was speaking to the Jews and not us Gentiles.

Our perception of The Bible is often times warped.  Looked at one way, the tome does seem pretty big.  In fact, if a person were to drop a Bible on his toe, he you might think God sure said an awful lot.  But if one stops to consider that God fit the history of several thousand years into the Old Testament alone and then skipped 400 years between testaments before presenting the life of Jesus and the early church in the New Testament, well, that reveals a pretty small book, considering, an author God who just gives the highlights.

The Bible does mince words. Thus, when we pick and choose which passages we would like to study and ignore the rest, we don't know what we're missing out on.

My studies just this past week reminded me of how important it is for me to let Scripture interpret Scripture, to continue building a knowledge base of each book so I can better understand the other books, whether individually or in their totality.

Back in September of 2011, I was studying the book of Ezra.  In one post, I wrote on the exiles who rebuilt the temple, then celebrated after the new temple's foundation was built.  In the midst of that celebration, the returned exiles who had seen the former temple wept: "Yet many of the priests and Levites and heads of fathers' households, the old men who had seen the first temple, wept with a loud voice when the foundation of this house was laid before their eyes, while many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the shout of joy from the sound of the weeping of the people" (Ez. 3:12-13).

While some of the weeping was due to happiness over this restoration, many tears were because of how ordinary this temple foundation was in comparison to the luxurious original built by Solomon and because even when physically restored, God's presence was not residing within the holy of holies as He once had.

This concept of disappointment is confirmed when later at the temple's completion, God spoke through the prophet Haggai: "'Who is left among you who saw this temple in its former glory? And how do you see it now? Does it seem to you like nothing in comparison?'" (Hag. 2:3).

This is what I understood at the time.  But because I had not yet studied the book of Ezekiel in depth, I missed another important reason why these exiles may have been crying. 

In the latter half of Ezekiel's prophecy, God gives a vision of His glory returning to a future temple.  In chapters 40-42, He even takes Ezekiel on a guided tour of that temple, wherein a man with a measuring rod reveals the height, width, and length of each wall in intricate detail, describing the gates, windows, courts, chambers, rooms, etc.  This future temple would be a huge complex, much larger than even Solomon's temple in all its glory.

Then, after receiving this blueprint, God says, "As for you, son of man, describe the temple to the house of Israel, that they may be ashamed of their iniquities; and let them measure the plan. If they are ashamed of all that they have done, make known to them the design of the house, its structure, its exits, its entrances, all its designs, all its statutes, and all its laws. And write it in their sight, so that they may observe its whole design and all its statutes and do them" (Ez. 43:10).

Here, God invites Ezekiel to share this vision of the "new temple" with those exiles who are with him in Babylon, those who have yet to be released by King Cyrus to go back home. 

Surely, some of these same people who heard of this future temple expected that this prophecy would be fulfilled in their lifetime.  Surely, when Cyrus allowed them to return to Jerusalem and gave orders for the temple rebuilt, they believed the temple built with their hands would be the magnificent one from Ezekiel's vision.

Yet, it wasn't.  Clearly.  In fact, it wasn't even as big as the temple King Solomon had built.  And so, they wept.

As such, their tears were not merely because they were looking back in sorrow over what once was and was no longer but also because they were looking forward in sorrow.  Anyone who had heard the detailed blueprint in Ezekiel's prophecy would immediately realize that this smaller temple could never be the one in the vision that saw God's glory return, never to leave again.

And so, their weeping was in the knowledge that God's promise to dwell with them forever was still far off because of their sin.

This revelation may not seem earth shattering, maybe not even important.  But, it spoke to me of how we should mourn.

Presently, Christians seem to want to mourn our present state by looking backwards to the "good ole days."  We mourn a country, a people who aren't as holy, as God-fearing as they were "back then."  Yet, instead of looking backwards all the time, I believe we should be looking forwards and mourning because of the holiness to come promised through the prophets, a time that seems so far from us at times.  

Both types of mourning require us to look at our sin, repent, and look to Christ.  However, looking backwards tends to focus more on people and their accomplishments as we wish we could be more like they were whereas looking forward tends to keep our focus more on God, His perfection, and His promises to come.  Whether we keep our hope in the past or in the future is important.

Had I said the book of Ezekiel was too difficult, too controversial, or too elusive to grasp completely, I would have missed the simple message God had planned for me.  It's a word of encouragement to all of us.  Even though we may prefer to read something else, God says to study His Word, and that means all of it.  

Who knows what simple truth He may have hiding for us in those favorite passages, perhaps little nuggets of life-altering wisdom that we'll never receive unless we veer from the well-worn path into the wilderness of those unknown books.  We may just find a missing piece we never knew we were looking for.

Image: from Derek Griz' blog, calling to Christians to read the Bible through in one year.

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