Fasting and justice (Zechariah 7)

Is our faith expressed with spiritual disciplines like fasting, or with justice in the community? People have different answers. Zechariah’s is revealing.

Read Zechariah 7.

How important is fasting? Is it crucial for refocusing our time and energy from material things to seeking God? Or does God want us focused on goals like seeking justice for those who are missing out? This almost feels like two streams of Christianity: one focused on a personal relationship with God; the other focused on justice for the world.

These were not separate topics for the OT prophets. People asked Zechariah, Should I mourn and fast in the fifth month, as I have done for so many years? (7:3) His response is explosive.
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Who wears the crown? (Zechariah 6)

The two visions of Zechariah 6 answer these questions: Who’s running the world, and who represents him on earth?

Read Zechariah 6.

We love to think we’re shaping our own destinies, living the dream of being whatever we want. Truth is, none of us controls the world. Much bigger hands shape our history, our nation, our economy, our opportunities. Corporate takeovers can make me redundant. Disasters can destroy my environment.

So, who is in control? Conspiracy theorists promote all sorts of hidden groups, but none of them run the world. There is only one God, one sovereign.

That’s how Israel thought until Babylon swept down from the north and captured God’s nation. Nebuchadnezzar told them he was in charge of their destiny — him and his gods. But that didn’t last. Persia swept in from the east, capturing the Babylonian Empire (including Israel), so who was controlling the world now? Their experience seemed as unstable as the wind.

The two visions of Zechariah 6 address the question of who is in charge.

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Why exile? (Zechariah 5)

As Zechariah calls the exiles home, he sees two explanations of why they went to Babylon.

Read Zechariah 5.

Zechariah began with God’s promise that he would return to reign over his people if they returned to him from Babylon (1:3). Like a married couple getting together after a separation, it’s important that they don’t just repeat the mistakes of the past. They need to learn from their ancestors’ mistakes (1:2-6).

God promised he would restore his leaders for the community, the high priest and the Davidic king. They would lead God’s people to rebuild the temple where God would be present among them and lead his people (Zechariah 2–4).

But why did God send them into exile in the first place? That’s what the two visions of Zechariah 5 address.

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Priest of the restored kingdom (Zechariah 3)

How does Zechariah’s story about a high priest in filthy rags relate to Jesus?

Read Zechariah 3.

The prophets inspired Jesus’ kingdom vision. After God’s nation disintegrated in the exile, prophets like Zechariah delivered God’s promise to restore his kingdom. He said that God had scattered them among the nations because of their unfaithfulness, and God would gather them as his kingdom again because of his covenant faithfulness (Zechariah 1–2).

The two markers of God’s kingship in Jerusalem were gone: the house of God (the palace for his throne), and the house of David (the anointed kingship representing his reign). Zechariah addresses these two problems in Chapters 3 and 4.

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My blood of the covenant (Matthew 26:28)

What did Jesus mean by this phrase? The backstory is not to be missed.

I’m meditating on a phrase Jesus used at his last supper: This is my blood of the covenant (26:28). What did he mean by my blood? How is his blood covenantal?

Since this was a Passover meal, I’ve heard people say that Jesus was the Passover lamb sacrificed for us. You can draw that parallel (as Paul does in 1 Corinthians 5:7, to ask us to live unleavened lives). But I doubt that’s what Jesus was saying.

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Giving up your king (Matthew 26:14-16)

When it goes dark, it’s not the time to give up on the light.

Matthew 26:14-16 (my translation, compare NIV)
14 Then one of the twelve — the one called Judas Iscariot — went to the high priests 15 and said, “What are you willing to give me, and I’ll hand him over to you?” They settled on thirty silver coins. 16 From then, he was looking for the right moment to hand him over.

What did this mean for Jesus? And what did it mean for Judas? This doorway has two sides.

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An unexpected gift (Matthew 26:6-13)

Sometimes people honour Jesus in ways we don’t expect.

Jesus was a king, but he didn’t ask for the luxuries that usually attend royalty. With his inversion of power where the king served everyone in his kingdom, his servants actually thought it was crazy to give the king an extravagant gift:

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Why did Jesus die? (Matthew 26:1-5)

Ask why Jesus died on the cross, and people usually tell me he died in my place, to forgive me for my sins. Shortly we’ll be looking at the explanation Jesus gave at his last supper, but listen to how Matthew introduces the passion narrative, Jesus’ looming death:

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Who are “my brothers?” (Matthew 25:40)

Who was Jesus expecting us to help when he said, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me”?

Who are Jesus’ brothers/sisters in this statement?

The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ (Matthew 25:40 NIV)

The context is where he’s sorting sheep from goats, based on how they took care of his needs. The sheep ask, “When did we ever see you in need and help you?” And that was the king’s response.

So, was Jesus thinking only of Christians as his brothers and sisters? Or did he have the whole human family in view? It matters, because the church needs to be clear about its mission. The answer you give reveals how you understand the scope of Jesus’ kingship.

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How the king evaluates his people (Matthew 25:34-46)

Our criteria don’t match his.

We’ve been celebrating how the world will be when Christ’s kingship extends to all the people of the world, when all the nations are under his reign. This is what finally brings peace, resolving every conflict.

How does he achieve that goal? His Father, our eternal sovereign, gives the kingship to the son of man, so he has the responsibility to sort out all the people of the earth. Like a shepherd, he separates sheep from goats (25:32).

So how does he know the difference? What criteria does the king use to evaluate his subjects and decide who are his?

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The king who sorts it out (Matthew 25:31-33)

Jesus’ final teaching story in Matthew reveals him as king of all nations, the only leader who can remove what’s wrong with the world and restore God’s reign.

This is the ultimate teaching from Jesus before the final passion narrative in Matthew’s Gospel. Everything Jesus has said about the kingdom of God comes together in this story as the son of man receives the kingship and resolves the justice issues of the world.

This final story contains the most explicit description Jesus ever gave of how he expects humans to live in his kingship. What he expects of his subject is so simple, and his wisdom is so decisive:

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The joy of serving (Matthew 25:14-30)

Two workers found the joy partnering with someone who gave them huge opportunity, while another dug a hole and discovered how small the world of the self becomes. We know it as the “parable of the talents.”

Jesus told a story about a businessman trusting his assets to his staff while engaged elsewhere. How is this “parable of the talents” a story of the kingdom? Is it about Jesus’ return at the end of the era, or does it have a broader application?

First, let’s clear up some misunderstandings:

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Missing the wedding (Matthew 25:1-13)

Lighting the king’s procession.

Jesus continues with three more stories of his coming to kingship. The first is about a wedding where some of the young guests were looking forward to the bridegroom’s arrival, but missed it because they weren’t prepared.

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Serving in God’s house (Matthew 24:45-51)

So, what is the church called to do? A practical answer from the Master of the house.

Okay, so you’re a pragmatic person, and you need to know what practical difference all this stuff about the coming of the son of man makes for how we live our lives now? This post is for you. Jesus answered your question at the end of Matthew 24.

So what does the king want his servants to do now in anticipation of the whole world under his care? Here’s what he does (and does not) want us to do. This is what serving Christ looks like:

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Coming like a thief (Matthew 24:42-47)

Burglars are as unpredictable as they are unwelcome. But a king’s arrival wouldn’t normally be compared to a burglar breaking in to rob the house. What’s going on?

How would you describe Jesus’ role in God’s household? Is he the master of the house, entrusted by the heavenly Father with restoring order to his earthly house? Or is he coming as a thief to take power from those who currently claim to run the world?

A wicked sense of humour probably isn’t the right descriptor for Jesus, but he certainly spun yarns and mixed metaphors in crazy-creative ways. You don’t expect the heaven-anointed king to come like a thief in the dark to rob the householder!

But before you can ask, “Say, what?” he flips the metaphor. Suddenly he’s running the household instead of robbing it:

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One taken; one left (Matthew 24:37-41)

All people should be treated equally. That’s basic ethics. So, is the world unjust if two people doing the same thing are treated differently?

One is taken, and one left. Which is which? Jesus has been speaking about Rome invading, advising the people of Judea to head for the hills (24:16). Is he speaking of soldiers capturing one, and letting the other go?

Or is God doing the taking/releasing? The immediate context says Noah’s flood took them all away (24:39). That didn’t leave many. Is this about God taking some people in judgement, and leaving others? Or is God taking some to save them, leaving the others to be damned?

If you’ve never considered these possible meanings, you may be surprised to know that Bible commentators seriously weigh these options. The commentaries I checked were quite divided over who’s who in this brief story. Jesus didn’t spell it out for us.

That left me wondering if we’re missing the point. We’ve assumed that it must be about the godly being saved and the ungodly being lost, but Jesus’ story doesn’t have those categories. It wasn’t about a bandit and a sheriff. He drew no distinction between them:

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Why we can’t know when (Matthew 24:36)

There’s a good reason our leader couldn’t tell us when everything would finally be under his care. Why didn’t he know?

Matthew 24:36 (my translation, compare NIV)
36 But about the day or hour of that moment, no one has been informed, not the angels of the heavens, not the son, no one except the Father alone.

We don’t have the security clearance to know when the kingdom of God will be fully here. No surprise: crucial plans are often “need-to-know.”

What is surprising is that our Commander-in-chief did not have that information. None of his troops had the envelope either. Why didn’t he know?

It may have to do with how power is transitioned from the existing rulers to God’s appointed ruler.

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Fig trees and seasonal change (Matthew 24:32-35)

The seasonal change is here, if you know where to look.

If you’ve read Matthew 24 as a chart of events in our future (a 7-year tribulation, then Jesus turning up in the sky with trumpets etc), you’ll be shocked to hear Jesus telling his disciples that all these things would happen in their generation.

Here’s what he said:

Matthew 24:32-35 (my translation, compare NIV)
32 Learn by comparing the fig tree. When its branch is already becoming supple and the leaves are sprouting, you know that summer is close. 33 Similarly, when you see all these things, you know it’s close, arriving at the doors. 34 I tell you the truth, this generation will not pass on until all these things come to pass. 35 Heaven and earth will pass on, but my words will not fail to come to pass.

How do you handle that?

Solutions that don’t work

I’ve heard people make some creative if desperate moves to deal with what Jesus said here, solutions that don’t solve the problem:

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Why are the people of earth mourning? (Matthew 24:30-31)

Two pictures combined in one, the reconciliation of heaven and earth.

I thought the gospel was good news. The son of man receiving kingship, backed by angels rather than military forces: isn’t that time for dancing in the streets, celebrating the end of oppression?

Why did Jesus describe the people of earth as mourning? Are they unhappy he’s in charge?

Matthew 24:30-31 (my translation, compare NIV)
30 Then will shine the sign of the son of man in heaven. Then all the tribes of the land will mourn and will see the son of man coming upon the clouds of heaven with power and much grandeur. 31 He will commission his angels with a great trumpet, and they will gather his chosen from the four winds, from one side of the heavens to the other side.

Truth is, we can’t enter a great future without dealing with the pain of the past. Reconciling means facing each other. It starts with facing him: the son of man, the heaven-appointed leader who draws us together in himself.

Jesus composed this word picture by combining two images from Israel’s story. From heaven’s side, authority is taken from the beasts and given to the son of man (Daniel 7). From earth’s side, the people weep as they realize how they’ve treated God (Zechariah 12). Combine the two pictures, and you have the perfect description of Jesus’ ministry: reconciling heaven and earth.

The mourning tribes in Zechariah

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Coming with the clouds (Matthew 24:30)

Armies give power to emperors, but only one ruler has the backing of the clouds of heaven’s hosts.

“You shall not pass!” That might be your worst fear if you’re facing an exam. You’ll hear it very differently if you recognize the image of Gandalf confronting the balrog in Lord of the Rings. In Matthew 24, Jesus tapped into images familiar to those who were living the Jewish story, images we completely misunderstand if we don’t make the connection.

Here’s an example:

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