The Bible Jesus knew: Exile and a new start

Ezekiel 36:24-28, John 14:23-27, 16:12-15

So we’ve been looking at the Old Testament; we’re looking at a very long story, which starts in about 2000 BC with Abraham in Genesis 11, to about 400 BC to the period just after the exile to Babylon. Our story starts with Abraham: a man originally from Southern Iraq, and He was called by God: up the Euphrates, down through Syria, and down to modern Israel, and during that time, God spoke to him about covenant. What I want to say this morning is that the Old Testament is a story of covenant, from beginning to end, between God and man. And it starts with this covenant with Abraham; God promised Abraham: I will bless you, and through your descendants, all the families of the earth will be blessed. And God promised Him a land.

And then history plays out; from 2000 BC when Abraham was around, to around 1000 BC. We see the people of Israel becoming a nation; possessing a land, and having God’s protection. What was really distinctive about this people was the presence of God with them. This was a manifestpresence. When the Ten Commandments were given, there was thunder and fire on Mount Sinai. When the tablets were taken into the Tabernacle (the tent in the desert) whenever Moses went in there, his face shone; he needed a veil to put over it. And then there was the pillar of cloud, the pillar of fire leading them. And when the tablets were put in Solomon’s temple in about 1000 BC, the Glory of the Lord filled the temple, like a cloud; so much so that the priests who were there couldn’t even stand up; they fell down under this manifest presence of God. 

There was something so special; blessings followed the presence of God, particularly focussed around the physical location of the Ark of the Covenant, containing the tablets of stone where the Ten Commandments were written, and around the temple in Jerusalem.

And then, jumping forwards, we have the exile. In 586 BC, all the people of Israel were sent away. So what happened between 1000 BC and around 600 BC – 400 years – what happened, that this incredible presence of God, and the special relationship God had with His people, seemed to go so disastrously wrong?

Last week, if you had the chance to go to Kilndown and listen to Simon, he talked about the history of what was going on in those 400 years. If you looked in the Bible, it’s 1 and 2 Kings, and 1 and 2 Chronicles. That’s almost like a factual history; a clinical history. This happened, then this happened, then this happened. Pretty shocking stuff if you read it.

But the prophets were Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel – the middle chunk of the Bible is the prophets. They were men who were around in that same 400 years of history, but they were commenting on it from God’s heart. They’ve got a much more emotional take on it; you sense from that, that God is all heart. God is all heart. So you see God’s perspective on what was going on.

There are three major themes running through the major and minor prophets – the major are the big fat books, and the minor prophets are the small books. One theme was idolatry, one was injustice, and the third is religious ritualism. 

The idolatry built up from the time of Solomon; even Solomon had temples to other gods. His son Rehoboam’s wife Maakah started a new state religion within the Kingdom of Judah, to the goddess Asherah, and she called herself the ‘gebira’, or the head of it. Meanwhile, in the Northern Kingdom (by then there were two Kingdoms), Jeroboam had set up a new religion for the golden calves which he said were the ones that had brought them out of Egypt. So both in the North and the South, they had new State religions. That proliferated over the next 400 years, and particularly shocking was the god of Molech, who they used to sacrifice their children to. Even the Kings of Judah did that as well; it is all recorded there in the books of Kings and Chronicles.

So you can imagine with that going on there was incredible loss of the value of human life. This particularly affected the children, the poor, the abandoned women and the foreigners; these all had no rights, and no protection in the judicial system, which leant in favour of the powerful. And while that was going on, there was a new religious elite growing, particularly in the land of Judah in the South, and all kinds of hypocrisy going on.

So the prophets; it wasn’t like a sin like a cross in a box, a naughty child that hasn’t got it right and has broken the school rules; this was a sin like a husband or wife having an affair, to God. It was deeply personal. He said things like: "You have betrayed me”, "You have broken our covenant”, "I loved you like a little child; I led you through the desert, I taught you to walk” – and in Hosea, He says "How can I give you up, Israel? How can I hand you over? My heart churns within me, and I will not give you up. I will not hand You over”. He was full of emotion; God was full of emotion over this. He knew that it needed judgment according to the terms of the first covenant, but He did not want to do it. And so he waited a long time – much longer than I would have waited- until the final judgement was exile.

Ezekiel was a prophet in Babylon. He was siphoned off when Nebuchadnezzar took a number of the elite over to Babylon in about 590 BC. From that place, God showed him a vision of what was happening in Jerusalem – almost like live TV. God showed him a vision what was happening, which is recorded in Ezekiel 8. Inside the temple of Jerusalem, there were idols right next to the altar, unclean animals painted all around the walls; there were seventy leaders of Israel bowing down to these idols, women weeping in rituals for Tammuz, the Mesopotamian God, and 25 men worshipping the Sun. And God said to Ezekiel, "Is it a trivial thing, that the people of Judah are doing these detestable things inside my sanctuary”. He basically said, it’s not ok, I’m not staying. And Ezekiel saw the presence of God like a glowing brightness – it’s all described, very visually – surrounded by Angelic beings, lift up, move to the wall of the temple, stop briefly, and then move over the hills to the East.

Four years later, after that happened, Jerusalem was sacked by Nebuchadnezzer, the temple was destroyed – burned to the ground – and the Ark of the Covenant is lost. Jeremiah was living in Jerusalem at about the time this happened. He said, "No-one will know or even care where the Ark of the Covenant ended up” – it was going to be so lost. 

So this was a covenant that had been made, a relationship cherished, then broken. Then exile. 70 years, they were away, but it was the end of an era. They did come back, and they did live in their land, but under foreign domination still, and very poor. But God never gives up on us, and His plan was that human beings and God would be friends. And that’s what He did. And in the prophets, it does speak about these three ways that the Israelites broke covenant, but it also speaks about the new covenant.

A new covenant was at hand. His presence was going to be closer to us than the temple in Jerusalem. What’s the nature of this new covenant? Jeremiah called it a new covenant; Ezekiel called it a covenant of peace; lots of the other prophets alluded to it. There would be a new place for God’s spirit – His presence – to rest. And it would not be within a building, but within the human heart. As we heard in the reading today, He will put His Spirit within us, and Jesus saying the Holy Spirit will come into us, so God’s law would not be written on the tablets of stone anymore, but on our hearts.

And we would know him – not corporately, not politically as a nation having a special relationship with God, but we would know Him from the inside out. We’d be able to talk to Him and know Him, from the least of us to the greatest, said Jeremiah. Our sin would be dealt with in a single day, said Zecharaiah, after the Exile; no more sacrifices, no more asking for forgiveness time and time; it was going to be done, once for all, and it was done by the Messiah, as Isaiah 53:5 talks about – the punishment that brought us peace was upon Him.

His Spirit within us; we are the new resting place for God’s spirit; we are the new temple. And as Paul said to the Corinthians, you yourselves are God’s temple, since God’s spirit lives within you. Jesus called His own body the temple, when He said it would be torn down and raised in three days, and when the Pharisees were shocked at his claim, we read that Jesus was referring to His own body, crucified but raised three days later, the new Temple for God’s Presence. And we are the body of Christ on the earth now.

So, what does this mean for us? This is the new hope: this new covenant is the new hope that Simon talked about, that is introduced all through the prophets. It is the Isaiah 35 picture of the Messianic age; promises of deserts bursting into life, of families united, sins forgiven once for all, healing for our bodies and minds, freedom, from being Satan’s hostages to being the boot that stamps on Satan’s head. This is the good news of the new covenant; this is the Gospel. This covenant cannot be broken by us; it’s not dependent on us actually; it’s made in Jesus’ blood. He’s paid for it. We say during communion, "Jesus said, this is my blood given to you: a sign of the new covenant, for the forgiveness of sins.” This is our covenant. We are totally justified. It’s as if we’ve never sinned, in God’s eyes.

Because of that, we can be filled with God’s presence; with His Spirit, from the inside out. We can hear His voice. We really can – ourselves, individually. We can know his heart – what he’s feeling. We can sense His presence. We can meet Him in worship. It’s a heart connection; a spirit-to-spirit thing. It’s a love encounter actually, as strange as it might sound. It’s a moment of nearness, with Him.

So we don’t live in the Old Covenant any more, where we have to come into a certain building, or get blessed by a certain holy person; we don’t have to do good works, to try and make up for our weaknesses, or even go to church a lot to make ourselves feel better…oh, it’s tempting because it’s religion, but it’s not Biblical Christianity.

No, we are now a new-covenant, Spirit-filled, God-encountering people. We really can be God’s mouthpiece, and we really are a living encouragement to the people around us. It’s not arrogant to say that, because it’s Him inside us that gives us the right to say that. We really are an encouragement to the people around us.

And we really can meet Him in worship, because He’s made the way. 

So we’re going to open up a moment with a couple of songs, to feel His presence with us here. You may feel like you want to open your hands in front of you, as a sign that you’re physically receiving His Spirit. You may prefer to shut your eyes and meet Him on the inside. Jesus said, my worshippers will worship me in spirit and in truth, so it’s something internal. It’s meeting Him. Let’s open our hearts to Him now, and feel His presence with us.

Going Deeper

  1. Read Psalm 132. How did the Israelites feel about the presence of God in the Temple?

  2. If you have been following this series, what does the word Covenant mean to you now?

  3. The sermon says there is a difference between the Old Covenant and the new Covenant. How would you summarise the difference? What does that mean for us as Christians?

  4. Read Isaiah 35 - which is a vision of the world that is living according to the 'inside out' promise of God. What would you have to do to live in that way?

  5. The sermon suggests that we can now be 'a living encouragement' to those around us. How can you be a 'living encouragement?'.

Hugh Nelson