Zechariah

Luke 1:5-24, 57-66

Today, we are looking at the New Testament priest Zechariah.  You may or may not remember him, but I bet you remember his son – John the Baptist!

The Bible begins by telling us that Zechariah was a priest of the division of Abijah.  This division is not really significant for our purposes, but just by way of interest, back in the era of the monarchs, King David split the priesthood up into 24 divisions based on the names of the adult males descended from Aaron.  He then created a rotating schedule, so that each division ended up serving in the temple for two weeks a year. 

This continued until the people went into captivity.  Upon their return, only four of the divisions remained; the rest died in captivity.  As their numbers once again grew, they again divided themselves up into 24 divisions using the old names.  So we know that Zechariah was, without question, a Levite and a priest, however, he may have been serving under the division of Abijah even though he was descended from another family member (you can read it for yourself in 1 Chronicles 24).

Anyway, in verse 5 Luke also reveals that Zechariah had a wife named Elizabeth, who was also a descendant of Aaron.  So both of them were from the tribe of Levi.  We are told that they both served God in righteousness:

Luke 1:6 – And they were both righteous before God walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord.

The people who lived under the Old Testament law had a multitude of commandments to try and keep (seriously – have you read Exodus and Leviticus?).  Keeping them all would be quite an accomplishment indeed!However, the overall meaning of the scripture is not that they were actually perfect people, but that they were faithfully observing both the moral and ceremonial institutions of the law.  They were certainly making Jehovah the center of their lives and they were fair in their dealings with others.

Interestingly, we see that despite their service to God, they had some problems in life.  I bet you can relate to that – I know I can.

Luke 1:7 – But they had no child because Elizabeth was barren and both were advanced in years.

In our society, there is no shame or stigma attached to not having children.  So it is sometimes hard for us to imagine that back in the days of Zechariah,there was a lot of shame and embarrassment associated with being childless.  The couple without children were often considered as being under some judgment from God, leading to speculation that they had sinned in some way. 

To add to their dilemma, they were both ‘advanced in years’.  Every day that passed made it look less and less likely that they were ever going to have a child. 

Luke tells us that Zechariah was serving out his week of temple service when he was chosen by lot to burn incense before the Lord in the Holy Place (since some of the priestly duties were better than others, they used lots to assign jobs).

Incense was burned twice daily.  One priest would go into the Holy Place and remove the ashes from the altar.  After he departed, another priest would bring a pan of fresh burning coals from the brazen altar.  After he left, a third priest (in this case Zechariah) would come and burn the incense before God.  As the smoke ascended, he would make intercession for the people, while at the same time, a whole crowd was outside praying.

So Zechariah is in the Holy Place about to offer the incense and prayers, when all of a sudden, he sees an angel.

Luke 1:11 – And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense.

The wording here is interesting.  It does not say that the angle suddenly arrived; it says that Zechariah finally saw him.  The angel may have been there for quite some time.  How many times are we surrounded by God’s angels of protection but we don’t see it?

Anyway, Gabriel has a two part message for Zechariah. The first part is for him personally.

Luke 1:13-14 – …your prayer has been heard and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John.  And you will have joy and gladness…

How amazing is that?  A personal notification that God was going to give Zechariah and Elizabeth the deepest desire of their hearts!  Not only a child, a son!  Their prayers have been answered!  But wait – there’s more! Not only will Elizabeth and Zechariah be blessed, John will be a blessing to the whole Jewish nation!  God is going to use him to prepare the hearts of the Jewish people for the soon coming Messiah, whom they have been waiting for, for literally hundreds of years.

Luke 1:14-17 – …and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord…and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb.  And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah…to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.

Now, stop and consider this scenario:  if you saw an angel right this moment and he told you that God was giving you the deepest desire of your heart, what would your response be? 

For most of us, the response would be unbounded excitement and gratitude, right?  We would jump up and down and rejoice and burst out with audible thankfulness.  We would already be making plans.  We would definitely try to get a selfie with the angel.  Then we would tell him to wait a minute, while we either send out a mass text or a tweet, letting everyone know that we were blessed!

The priest, however, does none of that.  Apparently, he has a moment of weakness and unbelief, despite the heavenly message.

Luke 1:18 – And Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know this?  For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.”

For future reference, calling your wife “advanced in years” is a bad idea, but doubting a direct promise of God that comes straight from an angel who stands in His presence is an even worse idea!  What was he thinking?

Luke 1:20 – And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.

So Zechariah is immediately unable to speak. Most scholars believe he was also struck deaf, based on Luke 1:62 which says that when the baby was born, they “made signs to his father, inquiring what he wanted him [the baby] to be called” (if he could hear, they could just ask him instead of making signs).

Meanwhile, as all this is taking place, the crowd outside is getting restless.  Zechariah has been in the Holy place an unusually long time, and they are wondering what is going on.

Eventually he comes out, but obviously, he can’t tell them anything.  They realize he had seen a vision of some kind, but that is about all they can determine.  He ends up finishing his week of service, then going home.

Are you married?  Imagine what it would be like to live with a spouse that could not speak or hear for the better part of a year.  Be honest – Aren’t there times when that sounds like a desirable condition?  But all joking aside, I bet it was frustrating.

Since communication was difficult, I wonder if Zechariah stopped communicating every little thought that popped into his mind.  I think he began to really consider what he wanted to say before he made the effort to communicate.  I bet that when he did make the effort, he had something meaningful to say.  He sure had lots and lots of time to think about how his words affected his life.

Well, as we would expect, the words of the angel are indeed fulfilled in their time. 

You already know the end of the story; Elizabeth gives birth to a son, Zechariah names him ‘John’ as instructed, and instantly the priest is once again able to speak and hear.  Now he bursts out with vocal praise to God.  People take note of John as a person of future interest; it is clear that the hand of the Lord was upon him. 

So, what can we glean from the experience of Zechariah? 

Answer:  THE THINGS THAT YOU SPEAK MATTER TO GOD.

Let me say it again:  Just as in the case of Zechariah, your words affect your life. God is listening and he wants you to pay attention to what you are saying.

Matthew 10:36 – I [Jesus] tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.

When Zechariah responded to the angelic messenger, he spoke words of unbelief, instead of faith and thanksgiving.  Remember, he was living under the old covenant (not the age of grace), which means he spoke unbelief in the very presence of God.  He deserved to be struck down and killed, but God did not do so.  He showed mercy to Zechariah and used him to teach us this powerful lesson about our words at the same time.

The bible has much to say about what you speak.  Here are two of many, many examples:

Proverbs 18:21 – Death and life are in the power of the tongue: and they that love it shall eat the fruit thereof.

1 Peter 3:10 – For he that will love life, and see good days, let him refrain his tongue from evil, and his lips that they speak no guile…

We live in an era where communication is astonishingly quick and easy.  No other generation has ever had the potential to speak as we do.  Not only do we speak to people in person, we can call, text, Snapchat, skype, instant message, tweet, Facebook, YouTube and on and on and on… 

But I have to wonder – in this age of constant talking, are we saying things of value?

If our tongue really does have the power to give life and death, shouldn’t we pay attention to what we are saying?  Is it really a good idea to just communicate anything and everything that pops into our minds? Have you ever said/posted/tweeted/shared something that you later regretted?

Do any of these things sound familiar:

  • I’ll never get out of debt. 
  • It’s too late for me to find a spouse.  I will always be alone. 
  • kids are addicted/living in sin/making wrong choices.  I don’t think they will ever change.
  • Nothing every goes right for me.  I never get any good breaks.
  • I’m losing my mind.
  • I probably have Alzheimer’s.   My memory is shot. 
  • I am so stupid.
  • I’ll never have a son, I am too old (that one was from Zechariah)!

The good news is that we can learn from the lesson of Zechariah and going forward, we can change the way we speak. 

First, let’s take a look at how our words function in the spiritual realm.

Joyce Meyer tells us in her book, “Power Words, What You Say can Change Your Life”, that words are like containers of power that you sow into your life. They can contain power to destroy or power to create, depending on what you speak.

When you speak words that destroy, such as ‘I give up, my marriage will never work’, you are sowing destruction in your life in the spiritual realm.  If you speak words that are life-giving such as ‘I believe God is going to is going to heal my marriage’, you are sowing life and blessing into your situation in the spiritual realm.

Now that we have a better understanding of how our words affect ourselves and others, what can we do to ensure that we speak words of faith, encouragement and affirmation instead of unbelief and destruction? 

Once again, the bible has the answer.  Jesus tells us that the words we speak are a product of what we are thinking.

Matthew 12:34-35– You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.  The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil.

Matthew 15:18-19 – But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person.  For out of the heart come evil thoughts…

Our thoughts determine what we speak.  The words we speak play a big role in what happens in our lives.  The key, then, is to gain control over our mind and thoughts.

I’m sure you have already figured out that despite your salvation you may still have thoughts of lust, envy or (like Zechariah), unbelief.  [Also, many times we speak destructive words out of pure habit].  That is because your mind/thought life is not instantly regenerated when you receive Christ as your savior.  Rather, it is sanctified over time as you strive to control it.  Gaining control over your thoughts is part of spiritual warfare.

2 Corinthians 10:5 – We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ

You can choose to fill your mind with the things of God like scripture or praises or testimonies of God’s grace and mercy.  You can dwell on stories of triumph and love. When you dwell on those things, you will speak praise, thanksgiving and words of life to yourself and others.

Philippians 4:8 – Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.

Stop and do a quick inventory of what you are watching, what you are reading and what video games you are playing.  Which of these things does your mind dwell on?  Do they affect you positively, negatively or not at all? What is coming out of your mouth as a result of what your mind is dwelling on?

Obviously, this little lesson is not an exhaustive study of the power of words and the importance of our thoughts.  It is up to you to look for good Christian sources to further assist you in making changes in your life.  Please do so!

In the meantime, what choices can you make right now that would make your thoughts (and by default your words) more pleasing to God and more beneficial to yourself and others?  Are you willing to take the first step? If you could ask Zechariah, I bet he would tell you to get started, because these issues are vitally important.

Let me offer you some words of ENCOURAGEMENT:  You can do all things (including this) through Christ.  With study and discipline, you can control your thoughts and bring them captive under Christ.  You can speak blessing into your situation. It won’t happen overnight.  There may be some struggles.  You may make mistakes from time to time, but getting your thoughts and words under control is going to make a big difference in your life. 

Proverbs 21:23 – Whosoever keeps his mouth and his tongue keeps his soul from troubles.

Let me offer you some RELIEF:  You don’t have to do this on your own!  There are many, many good sources available to you from other believers who have taken control over this area of their lives.  They can offer you advice and helpful insights.  More importantly, the Holy Spirit is living right there inside your heart and it is his job to sanctify your life – including your thoughts and words!  He is standing by right now to help.

Let me offer you some words of STRENGTH: Speaking words of faith can break bondages in your life.  It can open the door for God to move in miraculous ways.  Even though this may be a long term process, the rewards will be worth it.  Take the first step today!

Jehoshaphat

2 Chronicles 17-20

The kingdom of Israel split into two parts around 930 BC.  The northern kingdom was called Israel and the southern kingdom was called Judah.

Jehoshaphat was one of the kings of Judah.  He ruled in Jerusalem. His reign began around 872 BC and lasted 25 years.  The bible tells us that he was one of the few kings who followed after God.

1 Kings 22:42-43  – Jehoshaphat was thirty-five years old when he began to reign, and he reigned 25 years in Jerusalem.  His mother’s name was Azubah the daughter of Shilhi.  He walked in all the way of Asa his father.  He did not turn aside from it, doing what was right in the sight of the Lord…

Jehoshaphat was a successful king, who built a very strong military. He put garrisons in numerous cities and he established store cities in case of war.  1 Chronicles 17:14-19 tells us that he had over a million mighty men of valor in his service. 

Scripture also reveals that because he trusted in God and not in the might of his army, God blessed him.  The nations surrounding Judah had a fear of the Lord and they would not attack her. 

The Philistines (a long-time enemy of the Jews), not only refused to make war against Judah, but brought substantial tribute to Jehoshaphat.

Although Judah and Israel were enemies, Jehoshaphat eventually makes peace with Israel and the two nations join forces to attack common enemies such as Syria, Ammon and Moab.

As impressive as his military was, his true strength was found in his relationship with God.  It is clear that this man served the Lord with all his might. 

2 Chronicles 17: 6 – His [Jehoshaphat’s] heart was courageous in the ways of the Lord.  And furthermore, he took the high places and the Asherim out of Judah.

Let’s talk about the high places for a minute.  In general, this refers to altars that were erected on hilltops for purposes of worship and sacrifice.  While there were instances of these altars being dedicated to Jehovah, they were usually associated with false gods and wicked practices. 

The high places were a constant source of temptation/sin to God’s people.  These places of idolatry were often built up by the wicked kings and more or less tolerated by the more righteous kings; it seemed as though Judah and Israel could never fully stamp them out of existence. That is why it is so significant that Jehoshaphat was able to shut them down during his reign. 

In addition, Jehoshaphat had a great desire to teach the people of Judah about the law of God.  He sent priests and teachers throughout the nation to instruct the people in the ways of God.

2 Chronicles 17:7-9 – In the third year of his reign he sent his officials… and with them the Levites…and with the Levites the priests… and they taught in Judah, having the Book of the Law of the Lord with them.  They went about through all the cities of Judah and taught among of the people.   

He also established a court system based on the law of God, so that justice would prevail in the land.  I wish we had that today!

2 Chronicles 19:5-7 – He appointed judges in the land in all the fortified cities of Judah, city by city.  And he said to the judges, “Consider what you do, for you judge not for man, but for the Lord…let the fear of the Lord be upon you.  Be careful what you do, for there is no injustice with the Lord our God, or partiality or taking bribes”.

That is not to say that Jehoshaphat was a perfect man.  He made his share of wrong choices. 

Do you remember hearing about a very wicked king named Ahab?  Do you remember his equally wicked wife, Jezebel?  They were two of the most evil rulers in the era of the biblical monarchs.  Well, at one point Jehoshaphat had his daughter marry one of Ahab’s sons to cement a political bond between Judah and Israel.   Because of this bond, he fought in a war as an ally of Ahab.  Things did not go well for them – in fact, Ahab died in that particular battle! 

Later on, he made another alliance with a wicked king named Ahaziah.  The two of them built a number of ships for trade, but a prophet foretold that the ships would be destroyed because Jehoshaphat had entered into business with an evil man. Sure enough, he lost everything he had invested in that deal.     

But all things considered, things were going very well for Jehoshaphat.

He excelled at leading the nation.  The Lord gave him peace with other countries.  His plans prospered.  He had a good relationship with the Lord.  He had wealth and respect.  He was making a difference in his world by establishing a fair court system.  He brought his generation closer to the Lord through a public teaching campaign. 

I imagine that most of the citizens of Judah were happy to be living in such a peaceful, prosperous, righteous time (I know I would).

Our friend the king is busy doing good, seizing the day, serving God and doing what is right.  Then, all of a sudden, this happens:  

2 Chronicles 20:1-2 – After this the Moabites and Ammonites, and with them some of the Menunites came against Jehoshaphat for battle.  Some men came and told Jehoshaphat, “A great multitude is coming against you from Edom, from beyond the sea; and behold, they are in Hazazontamar (that is, Engedi)”.

All of a sudden, the good king is facing an unexpected, unprovoked enemy attack of epic proportions. This was not just some little skirmish.  This was a full out war, with the very real possibility that Judah would cease to exist as a nation and all God’s people would be destroyed.  (Not to mention the painful, humiliating death that waited specifically for Jehoshaphat).   

2 Chronicles 20:3 – Then Jehoshaphat was afraid… 

What do you think was going through the king’s mind at this point? 

I bet one thing was all the horrible death and destruction that would be possible because of this attack.

I bet another thing was the universal thought ‘why me’ or ‘why would God allow this to happen’?  These are both good questions that come to the minds of all Christians who face trying circumstances.

I bet he wondered ‘what am I going to do?’ 

It’s time to see what is truly down in Jehoshaphat’s heart of hearts… will he try to fight this battle in his own strength, trusting in his army or will he seek God for an answer?

2 Chronicles 20:3 – … and set his face to seek the Lord, and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah.

And so we find that Jehoshaphat does the thing that most true Christians do – he seeks the will of the Lord, believing that God will deliver him.  2 Chronicles 20:4-12 gives us the earnest, heartfelt, eloquent prayer that the Jehoshaphat prayed on behalf of the entire nation.  It is too long to quote here, but please take time to read it!

As we would expect, God answered his prayer:

2 Chronicles 20:13-15 – Meanwhile all Judah stood before the Lord, with their little ones, their wives and their children.  And the Spirit of the Lord came upon Jahaziel the son of Zechariah…and he said, “Listen all Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem and king Jehoshaphat: Thus says the Lord to you, ‘Do not be afraid and do not be dismayed at this great horde, for the battle is not yours, but God’s…”

God reassures his people that He is right there with them.  He also gives them instructions; they are to muster the army, go out to battle, stand firm, hold their position and watch what God will do on their behalf (verses 16-17).

So, the next day the people get ready.  But there was something unusual about the way this battle was fought.  The battle was not led by the infantry or the archers or any of the trained soldiers.  The Bible tells us that men in sacred robes went before the army singing praise to God.  The Bible goes on to reveal that victory came during the praise!

2 Chronicles 20:22 – And when they began to sing and praise, the Lord set an ambush against the men of Ammon, Moab and Mount Seir, who had come against Judah, so that they were routed.

God had the enemies of Judah turn on one another, until all of them were destroyed.  Then Judah went and collected all the plunder.  Then they returned to Judah and held another giant praise session to thank God for what he had done. 

Because of this great victory, God was glorified and known to all the other nations around Judah.  What a great testimony – and what great lesson! It is a lesson, because the principles contained in this narrative still apply to us today. 

Let’s switch gears for a moment and look at ourselves. 

I think that you and I are probably a lot like Jehoshaphat. If you are living in America, you can count yourself as prosperous.  You probably have a job that you like and you excel at it (if not, you at least have the opportunity to change it).  You are probably at peace with those around you.  Most likely you have the respect of your family, friends and coworkers. 

I bet you already have a personal relationship with Jesus, and you are probably doing things to influence others for Christ.  You may very well be part of an organization that is striving to bring justice to those who need it. 

Like Jehoshaphat, you may have made a bad decision or two which resulted in some hardships, but overall can you say that things are pretty good?  Can you see how blessed you are? Can you see the parallel between the ancient king and yourself?

Perhaps, like Jehoshaphat, you are facing a battle.  One day you were serving God and doing your best in life, when an unexpected, unprovoked attack comes upon you.  The attack has the potential to destroy you or someone you love.

Maybe the attack comes in the form of a sickness or a financial loss.  Perhaps it comes in the form of an addiction or maybe your house is destroyed in a flood or wild fire.  Regardless of what it is, the source of the attack is clear.

John 10:10 – The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.  I [Jesus] came that they may have life and have it abundantly.

  • What went through your mind when the enemy attacked?  Did fear come upon you as it did the good king?
  • Did you think of all the horrible consequences that would be possible because of this attack?
  • Did you wonder ‘why me’ or ‘why would God allow this to happen’?
  • Did you ask yourself ‘what am I going to do’?

Although your first instinct might be to try and solve this problem yourself, I suggest you follow the pattern of king Jehoshaphat.

First, seek the Lord in prayer.  Take your situation before God as the king did.  Fast if you feel it is necessary.  Create a time and an atmosphere where you can hear God speak to your heart.  Jehoshaphat took action, but only after he had a word from God.

Then begin to praise and worship your heavenly Father for the victory!

Don’t praise based on your circumstances; praise God based on His goodness and power.  Praise Him for his attributes and mercy.  Praise him for his loving protection and provision.  Praise him for all things!

The scripture tells us that God inhabits our praise.  When we praise him, it is an open door for him to come into our situation and make changes. 

In his book Destined for the Throne, author Paul Billheimer tells us “Praise and God’s presence are on the same wavelength: they attract one another. Though God is everywhere at once, He is not necessarily everywhere in benign influence.  Where joyful, happy praise is expressed, God is powerfully and compassionately active.”

So, let me give you some Encouragement: When you pray, God hears you. God saw the faith of Jehoshaphat and he will see your faith too. When we trust in our Heavenly Father, we are never put to shame. He is all powerful, he loves you and he has your best interest in mind.

Let me give your some Relief: The battle belongs to the Lord, not to you! The pressure is off. Jehoshaphat stood in faith, then sent mighty praises to the God of Heaven. In turn, God moved on his behalf. God defeated the enemy that the king could not. The same is true for you. Offer mighty praises to God and let him fight for you.

Let me offer you some Strength: Stand firm upon the promises of God! Find a scripture that speaks to your situation and put your faith into it. Don’t give up – God wants your test to become a testimony, so stand strong. The battle may take longer than you thought, but God is working all things together for your good. You can make it through this trial victoriously, with God’s help!

Lydia

Acts 16:11-40

Acts 16:11-12 – So, setting sail from Troas, we made a direct voyage to Samorthrace, and the following day to Neapolis and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony.  We remained in this city some days.

In Acts 16, Paul is in the midst of his second missionary journey, accompanied by Silas and Luke.  Timothy also joins the group in Lystra.  This was not just another weekend event – this missionary journey lasted approximately 3 years and covered nearly 3000 miles!  That’s a lot of travel!

In verses 11-12 the scripture tells us that Paul and company bypassed two smaller cities [Samorthrace and Neapolis] in order to come to Philippi. 

Philippi was a larger city, situated on the road of a flourishing trade route.  That infers a couple of things:

Goods and exotic item were brought into sea ports, transported to Philippi, then on to the rest of the Roman world.  Other goods went in the opposite direction – they left Philippi to be loaded onto ships and passed to other foreign countries.  So Philippi is a business hub and a center of wealth. 

There would also be a lot of people in Philippi.  The city would have a permanent population as well as a transient or temporary population of people who came there just for business and trade.  Because of this, we would expect a very diverse spectrum of people in that city on any given day.  These people could literally have come from anywhere in the known world. 

God desires for his love and forgiveness to be known in that great city.  He wants all of those people to find a personal relationship with him.  Also, if the gospel were introduced into this city, people would take it to the ends of the earth. So, how will the gospel be spread in this great city?

Well, things begin on the Sabbath.

Acts 16:13 – And on the Sabbath day we went outside the gate to the riverside, where we supposed there was a place of prayer, and we sat down and spoke to the women who had come together.

On that day Paul and company went outside the gates of the city to the riverside, where they expected to find a place of prayer.  Why would they go there? Why do you suppose they did not go into the synagogue, which was their normal M.O.? 

Answer:  Most likely, because one did not exist.  It took a minimum of 10 Jewish men to open a synagogue.  Scholars assume that Philippi did not have enough.

Notice that they did not start rounding up people to open a synagogue.  They were not trying to network with the most influential people in the city. They did not post anything on social media (okay, I know they couldn’t do that, but even if they could have, they wouldn’t).  They began by earnestly seeking the place of prayer, because prayer is the key that would release the power of God in Philippi.

One of the people in the place of prayer was Lydia.

Acts 16:14 –One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshipper of God.  The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul.

Lydia is from the Greek city of Thyatira in Asia Minor.  She was not born a Jew, but she is a proselyte, or a convert to the Jewish faith.  From this, we know that she must have felt a need for God in her life.  This is not unusual; God places a desire for him in the life of every person including you!  If you think back, you will probably remember when you felt that your life was lacking something and you recognized your need for God.  Then, the Holy Spirit led you to accept Christ.  This is what was happening to Lydia.

We know that Lydia was a seller of woolen fabrics dyed purple (Purple fabric was quite the rage at that time.  Funny how people are always obsessed with the latest in fashion).  Possibly she was the agent of some business in Thyatira or possibly she was an independent business woman. 

The scripture speaks of her household, though no mention is made of her husband.  Scholars have conjectured that she was a widow as well as a wealthy property owner and that she was well known in her community.

That also means she had a life much like ours in many respects.  She is not lying around the house checking her Facebook page and playing video games on her phone or Xbox after sleeping in until noon.

Rather, she gets up in the morning and goes to work.  She has pressures and deadlines and perhaps some supply problems or quality control issues.  Work is probably taking up a decent amount of her time, just as it does for us.

She also has a family to love and care for.  Perhaps some of her children or grandchildren need her help.  Maybe she takes care of her elderly parents.  Does any of this sound familiar? 

How easy it would have been for this very busy woman to find an excuse NOT to pray:  I’m so tired… there is so much to do…. I will do it later… I need to relax for a few minutes, etc.  Yet we find that Lydia made time to be in the place of prayer.  She made it a priority in her life. 

What about you?  I know you are busy; we all are.  Have you made prayer a priority in your life? Remember, the battle for Philippi was not won in the natural realm.  It was won in the spiritual realm first (through prayer) then it manifested in the natural realm.  Do you want to see changes in your life and the lives of those around you?  Then pray!

Lydia sought out the place of prayer.  For her, it was a riverside location. Where is your place of prayer?  It could be your armchair, your bedroom, your car or on your daily walk.  It really does not matter.  You just need a time and place to be alone with God. 

Find your place of prayer!

What happens in the place of prayer?  You find God Almighty.  You enter into his presence with thanksgiving and praise.  You lay your needs and requests before his throne.  You bare your heart and soul to your heavenly Father.  You begin to wage spiritual warfare to free those around you from the strongholds of Satan. 

It’s the place where you hear God’s voice.  It’s the place of power, peace, comfort and strength.  It’s a place where faith is built and strengthened.  It’s the place where your battles will be won; only then will you see those changes manifest in the natural realm.   

It’s not a place you find by accident.  It’s a place you find on purpose.  It’s a place you have to create and make time for.  Think of a typical day in your life from morning until bedtime.  Don’t you have more than enough stuff to occupy your time?  Don’t you often go to bed thinking ‘tomorrow is another day – I’ll have to tackle this or that tomorrow because I ran out of time today?’

Prayer can and will be squeezed out of your life in a heartbeat if you let it. 

Consider this: God expects us to pray.  He is waiting for us to enter his throne room. He is waiting for your permission to act in your life. Talk to him!  We (this generation) have full access to God’s presence – something that past generations longed for, but could not have. Let’s use it! It is up to us to make prayer a priority.

So, busy Lydia expends time and effort to be in the place of prayer.  And sure enough, something happened to her and her family that day.  She hears the life changing gospel of Jesus Christ from the lips of Paul himself.   She accepts Jesus as her Lord and Savior. She becomes Paul’s first convert in Europe! Her circumstances are permanently changed.  And apparently, it wasn’t just her.  Her whole house was saved and is baptized. 

Acts 16:15 – And after she was baptized and her household as well, she urged us saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.”  And she prevailed upon us.

So what happened next?  Read the rest of Acts 16 and you will find the miraculous power of God at work in that great pagan city.  The kingdom of light confronted the kingdom of darkness in a very public showdown that confirmed God’s power and authority. 

Here is the broad picture, though you really would benefit from reading it yourself:  Paul and Silas are beaten and thrown in prison for preaching Christ and setting a slave girl free of a demonic power. At midnight, they are PRAYING AND SINGING PRAISES TO GOD. 

All of a sudden there is an earthquake that opens all the doors.  They jailer is about to kill himself, but Paul steps in.  The jailer and his how household find Christ. The next day the city magistrates allow Paul and Silas to be set free, but Paul refuses.  He makes it a point that the magistrates were wrong and he wants a public apology – once again another opportunity to publicly declare Jesus Christ.  It had to be the story on the lips of every citizen and visitor to that area, from the lowliest slave to the highest magistrate.

The battle for Philippi and the great display of God’s power began in the seemingly quiet and insignificant place of prayer.    

How does Lydia’s story end? 

Acts 16:40 – So they went out of the prison and visited Lydia.  And when they had seen the brothers (new converts) they encouraged them and departed.

As more and more people heard about and saw the power of God, they believed the testimony of Paul and his fellow travelers.  They accepted Jesus as savior.  They came to regular meetings at Lydia’s house.  Scholars agree that Lydia’s house became the church in Philippi.   

She is considered to be one of the women mentioned in Philippians 4.

Philippians 4:3 – Yes, and I ask you, loyal yokefellow, help these women who have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life.

So, if you have ever received guidance or wisdom or comfort from the book of Philippians, at least part of that credit would belong to Lydia.

What impact can her example have on our lives?  Let me stress my main point once again, in case you missed it:  Prayer is the key to change!

Prayer is the place to begin making changes in your life and the lives of those around you.  As you pray, God will do things that you could never do.  He will open up doors of opportunity.  He will give you guidance and instruction. He will change your circumstances.  He will show forth his great power.  He will open people’s hearts to the gospel. He will confront the kingdom of darkness and give you the victory over it. He will use you in ways you never imagined.

I don’t think Lydia realized the impact her home church would have on the entire kingdom of heaven.  What can God accomplish through you?  Why don’t you renew your commitment to the place of prayer and find out!

Do you have a testimony about prayer that you would like to share?  We would love to be strengthened and encouraged by your testimony.  Please write in a share with us!    

Elisha’s Servant

2 Kings 6:8-23

Second Kings chapter 6 reveals a most wonderful and inspiring instance of God’s power.  Let’s set the stage.  In verses 8-12 we find that the king of Syria (probably Ben-Hadad) had been raiding the nation of Israel.  This was not an official war where the two nations fought against each other, but rather a kind of guerrilla warfare where the Syrians would take a limited number of troops and dash across the border to undefended places stealing people, flocks and goods.  Then they would quickly return home. 

God made Elisha aware of this, and he began to warn the king of Israel (probably Jehoram) where these attacks would take place.  King Jehoram would station troops there, and consequently the raid would be called off. 

The scripture implies that this happened on numerous occasions and eventually, the king of Syria began to suspect there was a spy or a mole in his camp who was leaking his plans to Israel. 

Eventually word reaches the king of Syria that his secrets are being revealed to the king of Israel by Elisha the prophet of God.  As we might expect, the Syrian leader sends a mass of troops to go and take Elisha prisoner. 

2 Kings 6:13-14 – And he [king of Syria] said, “Go and see where he [Elisha] is, that I may send and seize him.”  It was told him, “Behold he is in Dothan.”  So he [king of Syria] sent there horses and chariots and a great army, and they came by night and surrounded the city.  

This is the point in the narrative when Elisha’s servant makes his appearance, although we can assume he has been with Elisha all this time, and is well aware of what has been happening.

2 Kings 6:15 – When the servant of the man of God rose early in the morning and went out, behold, an army with horses and chariots was all around the city.  And the servant said, “Alas, my master! What shall we do?”

2 Kings 6:16-17 – He [Elisha] said, “Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.”  Then Elisha prayed and said, “O Lord, please open his eyes that he may see.”  So the Lord opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw, and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.

In case you have not read this particular portion of scripture, I don’t want to leave you with a cliff-hanger!  You can read the entire story for yourself, but for now, let me give you this synopsis:  Elisha asks to God to strike the troops with blindness.  This is not a literal blindness where you have loss of sight, but a kind of mental stupor where the men did not recognize Elisha.  Elisha then convinces the Syrian troops to follow him to the Israelite capital of Samaria, where Elisha gives the troops into the hands of the king. 

At that point their mental blindness is gone and they realize they are prisoners.  The king of Israel wants to kill them; however, Elisha tells him to feed the men and then send them home.  The king of Israel does so, and the raids ceased from that day forward. 

What an interesting and entertaining story!  However, God did not give us the Bible to entertain us.  2 Timothy tells us that all scripture is given for doctrine and instruction for righteousness.  So what is God telling us in this passage of scripture?

This scripture has many implications for the church at large and also for the individual.  

The church: Let’s examine the overall picture of what is happening.  The nation of Israel represents God’s people.  The Syrians are the enemy.  Notice how the enemy tries guerrilla warfare tactics against God’s people. 

This is a picture of what is happening today.  Satan and his troops are continually striking and warring against the church.  And sometimes, the circumstances look grim.  We look around and we see corruption in the church or we see worldliness being accepted in Christian circles.  We see the church lose ground in social issues such as abortion and prayer in the schools.    

But the news isn’t all bad.  God has provided offensive and defensive weapons for the church.  First and foremost, we have the blood of Jesus and the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit.  The victory of the church is guaranteed. 

Matthew 16:18 – And I tell you, you are Peter. And on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.

I would encourage you to take steps to be a part of the global kingdom of God.  Become involved with ministries that share the gospel world-wide. Pray for the ministry you have chosen.  Your prayers can make all the difference! Be sure to read testimonies of how these organizations are fighting against the kingdom of darkness.  You will see victories taking place.

Close to home, I suggest you take time to be informed about social issues in your own neighborhood and in this nation.  At the very least, make informed decisions on election day.  You might even want to consider taking a more active role. Though the battle may be hard fought, you will find that the church is winning victory after victory.

The individual:  Think about this passage of scripture again, but this time put your name in the place of the unnamed servant of Elisha:

When [your name here] rose early in the morning and went out, behold, an army with horses and chariots was all around the city.  And [your name here] said, “Alas, my master! What shall we do?”

Is it possible that you got up today, took a look around and saw that you were surrounded by an enemy?  Maybe you didn’t even have to get out of bed.  Maybe that giant problem was the first thought that entered your mind upon wakening. 

That enemy could be a sickness, or a financial problem, or a broken relationship that you can’t seem to mend.  It may be a wayward child or a spouse who is making destructive decisions.  It could be an unsaved loved one or a family member with an addiction or a legal issue.  Whatever the case, let’s start by acknowledging that the problem is real and serious.  The army that surrounded the servant was no joke.  They were skilled professional soldiers that could have killed him and Elisha at any moment. 

As the servant stood there gazing at the soldiers, the enormity of his trouble overwhelmed him.  He could not see a way out.  He felt there was no hope of his situation changing.  He felt he had reached the end of the line.  At that point, fear over took him.  In the midst of his hopelessness, he called out to the man of God.

Good call on the part of the servant!  Anytime we face a problem, step one is to call out to God in prayer.  Prayer should be our first option each and every time.

The bible describes God as the God who sees and hears.  He is never sleeping.  In fact, his ‘eyes run to and fro throughout the whole earth to show himself strong on the behalf of them whose heart is perfect towards him’ [2 Chronicles 16:9].

What happens next in the story?  Does God snap his fingers and cause the army to disappear?  No. Rather, God encourages the servant with a glimpse of what is happening in the spiritual realm. The chariots and horsemen of fire were a representation of God’s presence and might.  God uses that vision to open the spiritual eyes of the servant who then realizes the truth:  the forces of God far outnumbered the forces of his enemy. Or, as the praise song goes, God was surrounding the enemy that was surrounding his servant.  What a comforting thought!   

When the servant began to look at his problem through his spiritual eyes and not his fleshly eyes, fear, anxiety and hopelessness were instantly broken.  Faith rose up and hope in God was restored.  In an instant of time, he understood that Almighty God, the most powerful being in the universe was watching out for him the whole entire time.  

How do you look with your spiritual eyes or your eye of faith?  Well, first off you need to be familiar with the word of God.  You need to know and understand God’s promises to his children.  Then, you look at your problem through the filter of what God says. 

For example, maybe you have an addiction.  The world says you are unlikely to break that habit.  The addiction itself may look like a giant.  You may think it is more powerful and bigger than you are.  Maybe your friends and family have given up on you; they say you will never be free of it. 

But the word of God says differently.  The word says you have been healed by the stripes of Jesus.  The word says you can do all things through Christ who strengthens you.  The word says that when the Son (Jesus) sets you free, you are free indeed! 

As you meditate on these scriptures, and think of your problem in light of what God says, the magnitude of your problem will start decrease and faith in God will begin to increase.  You will begin to understand that the power of God working on your behalf is much bigger and way more powerful than the forces of your enemy [in this case addiction].  Faith should cause praise to rise up as well.  Give into your urges to praise God at all times.

Notice in our scripture text that after the servant saw the forces of God, Elisha [and presumably the servant] took charge of the situation and led their enemy around until they had been captured. 

With God’s help, you can do the same thing.  Once your spiritual eyes have been opened, you can then move forward in the struggle, taking command of the situation, knowing that God has your back and victory is within your grasp. 

1 John 5:4 – For whoever is born of God overcomes the world: and this is the victory that overcomes the world, even our faith.

While God certainly could just wave his hand and make your troubles vanish, he will rarely do this for a couple of reasons.  First, he wants your faith in him to increase.  This only happens in battle situations. As you win, your faith increases.  As your faith increases, you will allow God’s power to move through you in increasingly bigger and bigger ways.  This is a great testimony to others; they will see your faith and it will assist them in their own battles.  It will lift up the name of Jesus and sinners will be brought to salvation in him.  Also, fighting the enemy together brings you and God into a more intimate relationship with each other, which is something He greatly desires.

Here is something to consider:  When you face a trial, Satan will try to tell you it is all your fault.  He will tell you that God isn’t going to help you because you sinned. He will tell you that God is mad at you or that He cannot help you.  But if you look through your spiritual eyes, you will find that nothing could be further from the truth!  Don’t believe his pack of spiritual lies!  Instead, know that this is something God has allowed that will mature you spiritually, give you victory and bring glory to his name, even if it was your fault! 

So, what are you waiting for?  The battle between the forces of Syria and Elisha/his servant ended in victory for the people of God.  I suspect that right now, you have an enemy who is surrounding you.   God wants to give you the victory as well.  Will you join the battle?

Hagar

Over the course of the summer, we are going to take a look at several bible characters instead of opening up a single book.  I hope you enjoy these stand-alone studies!

Genesis 16:1 – Now Sari, Abram’s wife had borne him no children.  She had a female Egyptian servant whose name was Hagar.

Abram and Sarai had lived in Egypt for a short time, during a period of famine in Canaan.  The scripture tells us that while they were there, Pharaoh gave them many gifts, including male and female servants/slaves (Genesis 12:16).  It is entirely possible that Hagar was one of these servants.  This may also help explain how she came to be the specific property of Sarai as opposed to an ordinary household slave. 

What do you suppose life was like for Hagar?  The scripture says nothing about it, but I think we could make some general assumptions. 

From a religious standpoint, we know that all Egyptians were polytheistic.  This means that they believed in and worshipped multiple gods.  This would have been Hagar’s belief as well.

Given that she was a slave, I doubt Hagar had the fun, idyllic childhood that we strive to give our children.  It appears that she had some tough breaks.  Perhaps her parents or grandparents were also slaves; perhaps she was an orphan or a spoil of war. 

Regardless of how it occurred, her situation is permanent.  She has no hope of escaping her slave status.  She will never be a princess or a lady of the court or the wife of a noble.  She will never learn to read or write.  She will never be wearing the latest fashions.  She has no chance to earn her freedom.  In fact, she is nothing more than chattel (personal property).  A person in this situation likely has a low level of self esteem.  Did she have any adults in her life speaking words of encouragement and hope into her life?  We will never know, but overall, this was probably NOT the life that most little girls dream of living!

On the other hand, there was also some stability and goodness in Hagar’s life.  She was in a situation where she was not being abused.  Abram and Sarai were very wealthy, so Hagar probably never went hungry or thirsty and she always had shelter and clothing.  Abram served the one true God Yahweh, and he made sure that his whole household served him too.  Therefore, Hagar would have been instructed in the ways of God. 

And so, for a time, life was uneventful for Hagar.  That is, until Sarai got an idea to help God produce children for her husband.

Genesis 16:2 – And Sarai said to Abram, “Behold now, the Lord has prevented me from bearing children.  Go in to my servant; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.”  And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai.

So, Hagar the slave becomes the concubine of a very wealthy, free man.  It was a position of prestige that was far beyond anything she could ever have hoped for.  Then things get ever better – she becomes pregnant! 

Unfortunately, Hagar does not handle her good fortune very well.  She oversteps her bounds and begins to treat Sarai with contempt.  Sarai responds by using her authority to treat Hagar ‘harshly’.

Can you imagine the family dynamic in that house?  We have two women, in the same house, both of whom made some very bad decisions and as a result, all peace is gone.  It is now a place of jealousy and strife.  There is palpable tension (perhaps even loathing) between the two.     

For Hagar, what seemed to be a blessing quickly turned into an unbearable situation.  Things were so bad, she fled, intending to return to Egypt.  She was willing to face life as a single mom at a time when that status left her very few choices in life.   

On the way there, she stops at a spring of water, where she is confronted by an ‘angel of the Lord’, or as we know him, Jesus.  The Lord asks her a very thought provoking question:

Genesis 16:8 – And he said, “Hagar, servant of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?” 

The Lord then tells her to return to Sarai and submit to her.  He also reveals to her that she will bear a son, who will be the father of a mighty nation. Wow!  What a privilege for a slave girl!  What a miracle!  Her offspring will not follow in her footsteps.  He will be a free man, with many descendants – a free man who can choose his own future!

At that place, Hagar acknowledges the true God by saying this:

Genesis 16:13 – So she called the name of the Lord who spoke to her, “You are a God of seeing”, for she said, “truly here I have seen him who looks after me”.

So Hagar returns to Sarai and bears a son for Abram.  He is named Ishmael. 

This is a very interesting narrative, don’t you think?  Hagar is a very strong character.  Let’s look at her life again, and draw some parallels with our own lives.

Hagar had a rough childhood.  Either she was an orphan or she was taken from her parents at a very young age and given to a foreigner as a slave.  How was your childhood?  Maybe you can sympathize with her.  Maybe your parents were either not around or maybe they did not care for you as parents should. Maybe they did not speak words of encouragement and affirmation to you.  Even worse, perhaps they abused you. 

Know this – God was well able to overcome the difficult childhood that Hagar experienced and he is able to do the same for you!  Don’t let Satan whisper in your ear that you cannot be an active, successful part of God’s kingdom because of your past.  Don’t let him deceive you into believing that you have done things that cannot be forgiven.  That is a lie! God awaits you with open arms; he has big plans for you.  Hagar never imagined that her son would grow up to be the father of a vast nation.  What does God have in store for you that you have not imagined? 

Despite her rough upbringing, Hagar was important to God.  She may have been considered just ‘property’ to everyone else, but not to God!   He loved her so much that he appeared to her in person, to give her direction and guidance.  He spoke words of affirmation to her, assuring her that she would bear a son who would be a free man and a father of descendants.

God loves and cherishes you just as much!  Psalms 139 tells us that God knows when we sit down and when we stand up.  He knows our thoughts and is acquainted with all our ways.  Know this – YOU are very, very important to Him!

You may have noticed as you read this scripture that Hagar didn’t always make right choices.  Some of the problems she experienced (like her friction with Sarai) were of her own making.   

I think all of us, at times, have done the same thing.  We have all made decisions we regretted.  Here is the interesting part.  Notice how God handled this situation.  He does not deliver her from the situation, rather, he tells her to go back and submit (wow – that sounds difficult)!  Rather than delivering her, He walks with her through the difficulties.  

God often answers us in the same way.  He always forgives us when we sin, but most of the time we must walk through the consequences of that sin.  For instance, if we made the decision to steal from a local store and we got caught, we would receive punishment through the court system.  God will forgive us, but it is unlikely that he would ‘magically’ make our sentence go away.  Rather, he will walk with us through the situation, using our mistake to shape our spiritual character and make us into a better Christian. 

If you are in the midst of a trying or difficult circumstance that you are at least  partially responsible for, take heart!  Be encouraged in the midst of that thing, because God is using it for your good!  He is right there beside you, and he will see you through until the end.

As you recall, God asked Hagar two things:  where she had been and where she was going.  Her reply was that she was running away from Sarai.  She did not seem to know exactly where she was going, did she?  But there is good news – God knew exactly where she was going!  He already knew that he would use this opportunity to reveal to her the amazing, rewarding, unique plan he had in store for her life.

So, where are you coming from?  A place of regret or heartache, like Hagar?  Where are you going in life?  Do you know?  God does.  He is willing to do the same thing for you as he did for Hagar.  He is just waiting for you to turn towards him and seek his face.  Don’t delay!  Do it now.     

I hope you found encouragement and strength from this lesson about Hagar. Please feel free to write in and share your experiences with us. Also, if you have a favorite bible character you would like to study, let me know!

Ephesians

Chapter 6, Lesson #2

Ephesians 6:16-17 – In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God,

Faith is like a sort of universal defense.  Our enemy will try to launch fiery darts of unbelief, worry, unforgiveness, bitterness and hopelessness, etc.  All of these lies can be stopped or blocked with faith. 

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