Nehushtan

In John chapter 3, Jesus had reminded the folks that the brazen serpent had been a powerful type of the Messiah. “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up:” (John 3:14)

He referred to the twenty-first chapter of Numbers, where the people of Israel complained against God, and against Moses. So the Lord sent fiery serpents into the camp, and many people died. When they repented, God commanded Moses to make a serpent of brass on a pole. Whoever looked upon the brazen serpent would live, and not die. (Num. 21:5-9)

Jesus said that that serpent was a type of his Crucifixion—that he must be lifted up on the cross to bring life to a lost and dying world.

  • God commanded Moses.
  • Moses obeyed.
  • People were saved from death.
  • It was a type of Christ, and salvation by faith.

But 700 years later, when Hezekiah became king, he commanded that the brazen serpent be destroyed, in order to drive out idolatry from the kingdom. He called it “Nehushtan,” a thing of brass. (2Kings18:1-4)

Religious tradition had caused the people to burn incense to the brazen serpent!

  • It had been a gift from God.
  • It was a type of Jesus.
  • It was an agent of healing.

But religious tradition turned it into something evil—something wicked—into an icon of idolatry!

 

Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.” (Col. 2:8)

Nothing is so calculated to bring a person into bondage as religious tradition.

“Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.” (Gal. 5:1)

The Value of a Hungry Heart

With my E-Sword App open to Acts chapter eight, I come upon the familiar story of the Ethiopian Eunuch. Suddenly, the most obvious part of the passage strikes me as odd. He was reading Isaiah chapter 53.

Right now, I’m reading about his reading. But I have a Smartphone; he most certainly did not!

He didn’t have a Bible either. (The New Testament had not even been written.) No one had a Bible at that time. In fact, people didn’t have personal copies of the scriptures, at all. To hear a reading from Isaiah, even Jesus had to go to the synagogue (Luke 4:16-20), where the scrolls were stored and protected. Anyone wanting to study the Word of God had to go to the yeshiva (if they could get in). Rich people could study at the feet of Gamaliel (Acts 5:34), as the Apostle Paul had done (Acts 22:3).

But how could this foreigner have had his own Scroll of Isaiah?

Now I submit that this is a Divine appointment brought about because of the Scroll of Isaiah. It is central to the story. It is here in this passage just to demonstrate God’s point of view on the value of a hungry heart.

Let me address a few minor details in order to clarify the case:

  1. An “Ethiopian,” as he is called in the original, was not necessarily “a man of Ethiopia” (KJV). The term “Ethiopian” was used to signify any black man (Jer.13:23). This particular man was both black, and, as the context makes clear, specifically from Ethiopia.
  2. He was not actually a “eunuch,” in the sense of having his male organs removed. In the context given here, the term “eunuch” meant an officer of the queen’s court. This man was not a mere attendant in the royal harem. He was the queen’s treasurer, a man of great authority and opulent wealth.
  3. Candace was not the name of the queen. All Queens of Ethiopia bore the title “Candace” (just as all Kings of Egypt were called “Pharaoh”).

So, all things taken together, we have here a very wealthy black man from Ethiopia, traveling from Jerusalem to Gaza, carrying Hebrew scriptures (written in Greek, even though his native tongue is Cush). He comes upon Philip, a young Jewish man hitchhiking on the same lonely road, but with no intention of reaching the same destination. This is a Holy Ghost setup!

The answer to the question seems simple, at first. He is returning from Jerusalem, where he has just procured the scroll. But the sacred scrolls were not for sale in the open market. Nor could a copy be run off on an inkjet printer. (Printing presses did not even exist.) Neither paper nor pen had been invented, and ink was imported only at very great expense.

So the scroll could not have simply been purchased in the town square. Our man had to have it commissioned at enormous cost! Without doubt, the Scroll of Isaiah is his principle reason for being in Judea, in the first place. (We understand that he came to Jerusalem “for to worship” (Acts 8:27). But what greater form of worship than to seek after God in His Word?)

So, Google it! How far is it from Ethiopia to Jerusalem? Why did this man leave the princely comforts of life in the palace to face 3000 miles of treacherous conditions, en route to a strange city?

He had to pass through tropical jungles, encounter mountains and rivers, as well as soul-shriveling desert heat. But these were more predictable challenges than those of highwaymen, corrupt government officials, and even greedy innkeepers. (With a suitable vehicle, on today’s roads, the journey would require about seven days—one way!) In a chariot, traveling less than 10 miles per hour, he probably spent 6 weeks.

He could not expect to write a check. Electronic funds transfers wouldn’t go through. He didn’t even have paper money to lighten the load. No doubt, he jeopardized his life and his fortune by carrying large amounts of gold and jewels.

Why did he do it? What was his quest? He returned home with only one noteworthy added possession. He had gone to get the Scroll of Isaiah. He had judged it well worth the risk for the privilege of having access to just one book of the holy scriptures!

Next, we observe one of the foibles of the wealthy.  Anyone who has worked construction knows that rich guys never let them finish a job. They always want to “play with their new toy” before it’s done!

So it is with our principal character. He has scarcely acquired his priceless scroll. It is carefully sealed into its clay storage jar for protection from the elements on the long journey home. The royal driver points the chariot down the rough and dusty road. The passengers are seated just behind the north end of the southbound horses. (Conditions are hardly optimal for study of a document in a foreign language!) But this man simply cannot wait until he arrives at home.

He opens the jar and removes its contents. By the time he encounters Philip, he has read the first 53 chapters with dogged determination. He has just scanned a tale of a man condemned with criminals, but buried with the wealthy—an absurd story from his experience in government. Confused and frustrated, he is ready for help. Then Philip puts the question to him. “Do you understand what you’re reading?”

Now “Philip the evangelist” (Acts 21:8) steps into the spotlight. (He’s more than a little frustrated, himself, having been dragged away from the most amazing revival he could ever hope to lead. God had to send an angel to stop him as he “preached Christ” with power, in Samaria (Acts 8:26).)

Still, he is God’s obedient servant, and intercepts the chariot as he is directed. Here, he shows himself to be a preacher’s preacher. Beginning with Isaiah 53, he expounds the Gospel of Christ, and leads the financial officer to salvation.

It is clear that the two men are both immersed together in the baptism that follows (Acts 8:38). (This was no Methodist sprinkling service!) As they come up out of the water, Philip is transported 30 miles away. (I envision a clear, sunny day in the marketplace at Azotus, as Philip stands grinning before the gaping townsfolk. He’s sopping wet from head-to-toe!)

The passage draws to a close as the Ethiopian, we are told, “went on his way rejoicing.”

There is no further record of the man for whom God curtailed a Holy Ghost revival. Neither are we told what became of his Scroll of Isaiah.

But 1800 years later, the first European missionaries journeyed into the most remote regions of Africa. The indigenous people had never before seen a white man. They were oblivious to the industrial revolution, to steamboats, and to railroads. But they were inexplicably discovered wearing crosses on their persons and clothing. Coincidence?

Justice is Blind, but God Sees

Cairo, NY, c.1991.  “Pastor, I was 5 miles below the limit, but the cop gave me a speeding ticket anyway.”

My dad was NYPD, so I tend to sympathize with the police in most cases. But I knew she was telling the truth. Martha’s beat-up old van screamed “drug mule,” especially in that part of upstate where the problem was so pervasive. Then her face, toothless and scarred by a terrible motorcycle wreck, betrayed a past filled with gang-related activity. When she opened her mouth, her vocabulary revealed a weak education, common among the poor. To top it off, she made no effort to hide her disdain for the police. This wasn’t her first encounter with law enforcement. It was probably a “perfect storm.”

I told her what she already knew. “God loves you, and it will be alright.” She related to that. She was enthralled with the love of Jesus, who had recently snatched her from the jaws of death and eternity in hell, and given her a new life of hope in Christ.

I also told her what I knew. Go to court, enter a plea of “not guilty,” and explain your case on the date of the hearing, in about a month. That’s how the system works.

Meanwhile, I had my own problems. Finances had been super tight, but I had helped the owner of a commercial printing company, and saved him a small fortune. In return, he allowed me to contract some work that made his operation more versatile, and earned me some badly needed extra cash.

It was just enough to pay all our bills, with $100 left over. That was a lot of money for us in those days. I planned to visit a nice restaurant with my wife, who had stood strong with me through the hard times.

But in a way that I can’t explain, the Holy Ghost gave me an order. It was the most terse communication I’ve ever known. (I still remember the exact spot where I stood.) I must have that $100 in the courtroom when Martha stood before the judge. It didn’t make sense to me, but I knew it was God.

As it worked out, I had another commitment on the evening in question. So I related my God-given directive to Rosa, who lived near the court. I also gave her a one-hundred-dollar bill. She later told me what transpired in the courtroom.

At first, it was business as usual for the court, until Martha’s case was called. She answered politely with a not-guilty plea, as I had told her, and as others had done before her that evening.

Suddenly, the judge’s countenance changed! “Not guilty? Fine. We’ll set the case for trial in one month, and you can post a $100 bond until then.” For Martha, he might as well have demanded a million.

Martha was horrified at being treated differently from everyone else. “Your honor, I don’t have a hundred dollars.”

“Alright, we’ll hold you in jail until your trial.”

Jail didn’t scare Martha. She’d been there before, but she had another problem right now.

“But I have my baby with me…!”

“There’s a social worker in the back who will take your baby to foster care.”

By now, she was hysterical. All this over a traffic ticket!

“What if I plead guilty?”

“Alright, pay a $95 fine, or 30 days in jail.”

The wheels of justice grind slowly, but injustice is quick!

“Please, sir,” she pleaded frantically, “Don’t take my baby from me.”

Somehow, in the commotion, the judge perceived that Rosa knew Martha. He asked her to calm her down, and restore order to his court. Rosa approached the bench, and presented the hundred-dollar bill. “This isn’t from me,” she said. “A friend sent it to help.” (When you need a friendly face, Ben Franklin is always welcome!)

The court accepted the money. Trial was set for one month, and when Martha appeared, all charges were dropped. No explanation was given. The hundred dollars were refunded to Martha, who tried to return it to Rosa. She refused to accept it. It was a huge blessing to Martha!

By that time, God had blessed my family with many thousands of dollars of income. “He that giveth to the poor, lendeth to the Lord…”

Jesus had shown himself strong, answering a  young mother’s cry, before she ever knew to pray!

“Wherefore he is able to save them to the uttermost that come to God by him, seeing he ever liveth to make intercession for them.” (Heb.7:25)

Faith Works By Love

Catskill, NY, c. September, 1987. Our baby was only three months old. All skin and bones, Baby Alice was so weak that she could no longer lift her little head. The doctors were helpless as the life continued to slip away from her tiny, limp body.

Our little girl was dying before our eyes, and no one knew why. Her pediatrician said she needed to gain weight–at least half an ounce per day. But she would only eat a little, and then regurgitate the small amount she had consumed. Little Alice grew weaker by the hour.

I am thankful for medical science. It is certainly a blessing from heaven, the wisdom of God on loan to men. But it is not our ultimate resource in the day of trouble.

The doctors could do no more, but faith had just begun.

Sometimes faith keeps us out of the fire; sometimes it preserves us as we pass through the flames. In either case, God is glorified.

Of course, we had been praying for our baby all along. And I frankly don’t understand everything I know about the interaction between faith and prayer. It’s a good thing to use faith and patience to inherit the promises (Heb.6:12), but it’s just stupid to let your baby die instead of asking the church for help.

So we brought our daughter for prayer, and the pastor wisely called for just the ladies of the church. (It may not be politically correct to acknowledge our differences, but guys try to remain stoic in these situations.) Those women let their emotions flow as they prayed over a dying baby. (It got loud!)

From that moment, Alice began to gain a full ounce a day, as the strength returned to her muscles, and the flesh to her limbs. (It was quite some time before we learned that she was allergic to the protein in milk, and we changed her diet to soy formula. In fact, from a medical point of view, she should not have improved when she did. Nevertheless, she continued to gain weight, and got quite plump for a time.) Today she has a little girl of her own, and serves as a youth leader for her church in Colorado.

There are two points we should not fail to notice here:

  1. God likes to work when nothing else will.
  2. Read back through the gospels. We like to see several references to “great faith”. But it is much more common that the power of God is precipitated by compassion for hurting people. (Matt. 9:36, 14:14, 15:32, 20:34, Mark 1:41, 5:19, Luke 7:13)

Perhaps if we showed more compassion, the world would have more faith.

Pressing-In to the Anointing

From his days as an itinerant evangelist, Dr. James Finn relates what I have dubbed “The Banana Story.” It happened in the early 1970’s, when he was ministering in Clayton, Georgia. Just before the evening meeting, while he was driving to the church, he felt impressed by the Holy Ghost to stop and purchase a bunch of bananas.

Later, having delivered the message from the Word, he gave the altar call. As part of that invitation, he told the congregation that anyone who needed a healing should come and eat one of the bananas. As a matter of reason, that was patently absurd, and the church reacted accordingly. No one came forward, except one lady who came and dutifully ingested the fruit.

A few days later, the same lady appeared at another service where she joyfully testified to the healing power of God. After eating the banana, she had returned to her oncologist. The doctor was so dumbfounded that he insisted on duplicate testing. At length he had pronounced her cancer-free.

Of course, there was no virtue in the banana! And there is no “power or holiness” in men of God. (Acts 3:12) But there is a scriptural principle.

“Believe in the LORD your God, so shall ye be established; believe his prophets, so shall ye prosper.” (2 Chr.20:20)

So the prophet Elisha told Naaman, “Go and wash in Jordan seven times…” to be cleansed of his leprosy. (2 Kings 5:10) The Syrian commander was outraged at such a preposterous instruction. At first, he refused to comply, but was later persuaded when its harmless simplicity was pointed out to him.

To bolster our faith, not his, the Holy Ghost sometimes requires of us only some simple act of obedience. In exchange, He gives us his own omnipotent power. When we do the possible, God does the impossible.

Why did Jesus spit on the blind man’s eyes? (Mark 8:23) Ridiculous! Why send a man to bathe in the pool of Siloam? (John 9:7) Absurd! How can a banana cure cancer? Impossible!

The overriding principle is found in Acts 10:38. Jesus was ANOINTED by God. He “went about” like any other man who was empowered by the Holy Ghost. Just like Elisha, he gave instructions that were simple, however ludicrous.

Why dip in the Jordan? Why wash at Siloam? Because “God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise.” (1 Cor.1:27)

In other words, it doesn’t make sense to human wisdom. We can’t understand it, because God doesn’t need our comprehension. “Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.” (Prov. 3:5)

Laying hold on the anointing sometimes requires a gesture. A simple action animates our faith, like touching the hem of the Master’s garment. (Matt. 9:20) Logic argues, “How will that help?” But faith replies, “What can it hurt?”

When we do the possible, God does the impossible.

Victorious Together

We need to adopt an attitude in the Church of One for All, and All for One.

Men and women of faith and vision (e.g., Martin Luther) have been (and continue to be) plagued by bouts of depression that are NOT rooted in sin or unbelief.

Living a life of thankfulness (Php.4:6), and setting our affections on the things above (Col.3:2) are powerful weapons in our arsenal (2Cor.10:4). But we still have to wrestled against principalities and powers (Eph.6:12) that don’t fight fair.

Sometimes depressed people just need our love and support. We must be careful not to blame the victim, as Job’s comforters did (and were rebuked by the Lord). They offered simplistic solutions to complex problems!

Indeed, we are called to live a victorious life. But victory and defeat are only decided in battle. It is certainly true that, collectively, we have power over all the power of the enemy (Luke 10:19). Before the forces of evil, the Church rises as a light in the darkness, “…terrible as an army with banners.” (Song 6:10).

Corporately, we are the Church of the Living God. We are an invincible force, under the command of the Captain of the Hosts of the Lord.

But individually, we fight as soldiers. (Jesus has no Lone Rangers!) Overcoming the world, the flesh, and the devil requires that every one of us learn to “…endure hardness, as a good soldier of Jesus Christ.” (2Tim.2:3)

No soldier ever returned to the barracks in victory while his comrades-in-arms suffered defeat in the field. When a brother or sister is struggling desperately, sinking in the quicksand of despair, it is wickedness to marginalize his battle with trite slogans. Therefore, as fellow soldiers, we are commanded, “Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ.” (Gal.6:2) That is the Law of Love.

“We then that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves.” (Rom.15:1)