Proclaim Liberty to the Captives

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed…”

Luke 4:18 (ESV)
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Yesterday, we observed a holiday, relatively “new” on the national scale, of “Juneteenth.” Many people across the United States (and elsewhere) still don’t know the meaning behind this day. On the nineteenth of June, 1865, federal soldiers entered the city of Galveston, Texas, with news of the Emancipation Proclamation and the victory of the Union over the Confederate Army in the Civil War. The Emancipation Proclamation, in which President Abraham Lincoln declared freedom for all slaves throughout the Confederate States, had been signed on January 1, 1863. The war had been over for more than two months. President Lincoln had been assassinated in April. But news of the proclamation had never reached as far as Galveston; nor had news of the defeat of the Confederacy. Far from the ravages of the war, and far from the events of Washington or Richmond, the people of Galveston continued with life as it had been. For two-and-a-half years, people who had been declared free continued to live as slaves. News of their freedom came with shock and joy! Finally, those who were considered free in the eyes of the law KNEW they were free, indeed!

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It would take more than 100 years for many of the injustices to be addressed that had grown up around slavery. Many of them are still being contested. But the celebration of the good news of Freedom continues, along with the hope that we will continue to build a better Union for All.

Civil Rights activist Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gesturing during sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church. (Photo by Donald Uhrbrock//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Several centuries before the American Civil War, Jesus stood in the synagogue and read a prophetic passage from the book of Isaiah, in which He declared that He had been anointed to proclaim, among other things, “liberty for the captives.” He wasn’t talking about those who were in physical or institutionalized slavery, but for all of us who are slaves to sin. Unlike the slaves of Galveston, many of us are unaware of our captivity. But like them, we have been declared Free. What good news! Yet, we continue living in ignorance, both of our slavery, and of our potential freedom.

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How many of us, even those of us who claim the Salvation of Christ, continue to live as though we are slaves? How many of those around us live as slaves without knowing they can be free? Today is a great day to proclaim the Good News– Jesus Saves! We can walk in Freedom and Newness of Life! Hallelujah! Carry the Good News to those who have not heard. Proclaim Freedom to the captives, and Liberty for those who are oppressed.

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Juneteenth is a time of celebration and exhilaration– for those who understand the gift of freedom. God offers us freedom–not from the trials or work of ordinary life– but freedom TO LIVE–abundantly, eternally, and fruitfully! In Christ, life has purpose, promise, hope, and joy. Death and sin and shame have been defeated– the war is over! Freedom is ours!

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I hope that today (and every day!)is a day of celebration for all of us who know the Freedom of Life in Christ.

The Right Time

But when the right time finally came, God sent his own Son. He came as the son of a human mother and lived under the Jewish Law, to redeem those who were under the Law, so that we might become God’s children

Galatians 4:4-5 (Good News Translation– emphasis added)

At just the right time Christ died for ungodly people. He died for us when we had no power of our own.

Romans 5:6 (New International Reader’s Version–emphasis added)

Do you ever wonder at God’s timing throughout the Bible? Why did He take the Israelites up to the edge of the Red Sea and THEN send the entire Egyptian army after them? Why did He allow Haman to trick the king into signing an edict that would wipe out the Jews and THEN send Esther to try to save them? Why did Jesus wait until Lazarus was dead to visit His sick friend? Or God’s timing in our own lives? Why didn’t He make it possible to get the job I wanted when I first applied, instead of nearly a year later? Why is life so stressful all at once? Why does God seem to give me wisdom AFTER I’ve messed up? And yet, God’s timing is perfect. Not that it seems that way–in fact, it often seems like God is not paying attention to timing at all.

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Even in Christ’s birth, it seems like the timing couldn’t have been worse–Joseph and Mary forced to travel far from home, only to find that there was no room anywhere for them to rest. And then– THEN–the labor pains began! It was cold, dark, filthy, lonely, and frightening. And not just that evening: the Romans ruled a significant portion of the world with an iron fist. Jews were not forbidden from worshipping God, but they were heavily taxed, regulated, and watched over by their invaders. This newest census was just another part of the bureaucracy and endless government red tape. It seems like it would be the worst timing ever for Emmanuel to appear.

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And yet, Scripture says it was “just the right time” for Christ to come. So what can we discover about this “right time?”

  • God had been silent for 400 years before this– almost exactly the same amount of time the Israelites had been in captivity in Egypt before God sent Moses to lead them out. Coincidence? I’m not so sure…God uses patterns to illustrate concepts. Just as the Israelites had been slaves to the Egyptians, so all of us were slaves to Sin and Death. “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up” John 3:14 (New American Standard Bible)
  • The prophets made hundreds of statements about where and how Emmanuel would be born– some seemed completely contradictory; yet they were all fulfilled exactly. Again, this wasn’t a coincidence– God orchestrated events over centuries until it was “the right time” for them to all come to pass. Only God could have coordinated it all–the census, the genealogy of Jesus, Joseph’s hometown, Mary’s contractions coming THAT night in THAT cattle shed, instead of on the road somewhere, or in a private room where the shepherds couldn’t visit…
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  • The Jewish people had been in exile off and on throughout the centuries; under Rome, even though they were conquered, most of the Jews who had returned to their homeland were still living there, much as they had centuries before. That wasn’t the case four or five hundred years before– it isn’t even the case today– more Jewish people live outside of Israel than in it!
  • Rome had established its rule over most of the Western World– and with it, they had established a system of roads, common currency, and a complex legal system. All of this played vital roles in the advent of the Savior– from His birth, through His ministry, and even in His trial, death, and the spreading of the Gospel. Before them, the Greeks had established cities and trading centers that would form the basis of the first missionary trips of the Apostle Paul. And they had created a “common” language in which this Good News was first written and spread. Just a few hundred years earlier, the spread of Christianity through letters and traveling ministers would have been much slower, less efficient, and more dangerous. Just a few hundred years later, the Roman Empire would be in shambles; travel would require going through regions separated by differing languages and governments.
  • To me, one of the most fascinating things to imagine is what it might be like if Christ had not come until our own time. First, there would be no Christianity, and none of the work of Christians over the centuries would have been done. But even if we imagine that all of history had unfolded and the present was much as it is, Christ’s birth would not have happened in the same way. Bethlehem would not be under the rule of Rome. In fact, Israel might not even exist; as it is, it exists in hot contention between the Jews, the Palestinians, and their close neighbors in the Middle East. There would be no census, and no need for Joseph and Mary to travel– and certainly not by donkey! There might be “no room at the inn,” but Joseph and Mary would be sent to a homeless shelter, filled with other hapless travelers. The shepherds, seeing angels, might still be filled with fright– mistaking them for missiles! Even so, it would only take minutes for a team of journalists to arrive with cameras, microphones, and commentary! The message of the angels would be dubbed “false” information or “fake news”, as would most of the prophecies about His arrival. “Fact checkers” would “kill” the story, and Mary, Joseph, and all the shepherds and wise men would be “cancelled” or receive threats.
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Or not–I can only speculate. But I can say with confidence that God’s timing, even when it seems odd or “wrong” by our limited perspective, is perfect and worthy of our praise. All that seems “odd” or “wrong” about Christ’s coming when, where, or how He did, is just our limited perspective, and our tendency to doubt whatever we don’t understand.

Emmanuel came! He came at “just the right time” to fulfill all the promises and complete His ministry on Earth. Everything happened just as God designed it. And over two thousand years later, we still “Rejoice!” We sing songs, celebrate, and worship. We breathe in Hope, we give gifts, and we cherish the story of Christmas in hundreds of different ways.

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This same God has a plan for us today. Throughout our lives, He sends blessings, allows struggles, and patiently stands by, offering help and hope to each of us. There is not a single detail of our lives that escapes His notice or is beyond His capacity or willingness to restore, transform, redeem, or renew.

Emmanuel– God WITH us–at “just the right time!”

Lions, Darius, and Prayers… Oh My!

The Biblical figure of Daniel is mostly remembered for being thrown into a den of lions as a punishment for praying to the God of Heaven in defiance of a new law (proposed by his enemies, who hoped to set him up). https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Daniel+6&version=NIV The story is a familiar one– so familiar that we sometimes pass over the context and details. I don’t want to retell the entire story, but I want to put it in context. There is a lot more than just a den of lions and a miraculous rescue.

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First, the Book of Daniel is filled with loosely tied stories in the life of Daniel, an Israelite captured by the Babylonians, and living in exile over the course of over seventy years. By the time we get to chapter six, Daniel is likely in his late eighties or early nineties! He has served under at least five monarchs in two empires, and has seen the utter collapse of two major capital cities (Jerusalem and Babylon). Because of the episodic nature of the first half of this book, we have very few details of Daniel’s everyday life– we never learn if he was married or had children; if he was ever allowed to return to the land of Judah; or if he was able to use his position and influence to help other Jewish families or speak out against the idol worship and human sacrifice practiced by his captors. In the story of Belshazzar, it seems that Daniel had been relegated to a lower position within the palace during the years after Nebuchadnezzar’s death– Belshazzar did not know of him; only because the Queen remembered his ability to interpret dreams was Daniel summoned and brought back to court. The events of chapter six are unique and shocking to us, but not in the context of Daniel’s life.

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There is a pattern that gets repeated throughout Daniel’s story– it is the confrontation of two great powers– Daniel’s faithful service to God puts him in opposition to the powers of his captors. He is a captive and a foreigner, but that is not what makes him (and his three friends) a target of powerful enemies. It is his prayer life and his obedient devotion to God that causes him to be singled out. In seven decades, that devotion has never wavered, and Daniel’s life of prayer has been consistent, both in private and in public. Daniel doesn’t have to argue, protest, or announce his devotion. When he is praised for his abilities, he quietly gives the glory and credit to God. When he is vilified and betrayed, he quietly waits for his vindication to come from the God he has trusted through the years.

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Darius, (like Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar and others before him) is impressed by Daniel– enough that he appoints Daniel to a position of great power and authority within the kingdom. Daniel, because of his humility and integrity, is not threat to the rule of Darius–but he does pose a threat to those under him who are hungry for power and prestige. There will always be people in this world who will try to destroy what they do not understand or respect. Darius is not the author of Daniel’s dilemma, but a tool in the hands of corrupt officials. Daniel could have been hurt, enraged, or defeated by this decree from Darius– but he recognized that the real enemy wasn’t Darius, or the crooked satraps who put him up to it (or the hungry lions he faced)– the real enemy was the opposition to Almighty God and the refusal to acknowledge His authority. Darius is quick to learn that God’s power is real and absolute, and that God is gracious in his power, and loving toward his servants. The wicked satraps did not learn this lesson, and they perished.

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Notice that, just as in the story of the fiery furnace, God did not remove the danger. Daniel’s friends had to go into the fiery furnace…Daniel had to go into the den of lions. And these were not just overgrown kittens. They would have been captive lions– just as Daniel was held in captivity! They were trapped in this den, unable to hunt for their food; dependent on the whims of their captors. They were kept in a state of uncertainty, fear, and hunger. They were desperate, and hurt, and angry. When Daniel is brought out of the den, and Darius orders the conspirators to be thrown in (with their families), the lions pounce with terrifying ferocity, not even letting the bodies hit the bottom of the den! God may allow us to face some terrifying “lions”– scoffers and rebels and desperate people who will try to take their anger and hurt out on us. Will we trust that God can stop their mouths while we wait for deliverance?

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Daniel’s calm response to this entrapment was not the result of Daniel being “holier” than someone else, or more clever; God did not send him a vision of assurance that he would live to see another day. Daniel must have been terrified of facing several starving lions! At his age, he would not have had the strength to fight them. But Daniel’s obedience and trust won the respect of yet another ruler from a very different culture. And God’s miraculous rescue won the awe of Darius– so much so that he issued a decree throughout his realm to all peoples of every language in the kingdom to fear and tremble before the God of Daniel! Faithfulness, humility, and obedience always open up opportunities for God to display His Glory.

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Just as Daniel was thrown alone into a lion’s den and sealed inside by a large stone, one day Jesus would be thrown into a tomb to face death and hell. He was sealed in with a large stone, but no one came to his rescue. He stood and faced our enemies– Sin and Death. His flesh was torn and crushed and His blood poured out, and He bore the wrath and punishment that we deserved, so that Sin and Death were defeated. And when He was finished, the stone was removed, and Jesus emerged victorious! His faithfulness, humility, and obedience let to Glory and Life. We may never face a literal den of lions– we may not be tested with persecution, but Jesus has already won the battle; He has permanently closed the mouth of our greatest enemy, and set us free!

Daniel’s prayer life is not marked by spectacular prayers of rhetorical magnificence. He isn’t known for fervent fasting and wailing prayers for the rescue of his nation (though he probably said many). Daniel is noted for his consistent practice of praying– good days, bad days; days of glory or ignominy; days of ease and days of uncertainty; days spent serving wise rulers, and days spent serving madmen and spoiled brats– Daniel quietly and faithfully went to God in prayer. He didn’t make a public spectacle, but he didn’t hide, either. Will we be faithful to seek God’s face throughout the day– in little matters and times of crisis; in praise and in pain; for our daily bread, our neighbor’s health, our nations’ revival, and our world’s salvation and healing?

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Daniel–Prayer Under Pressure

In Chapter 2 of the Book of Daniel, there is an interesting story. Most often, students of the Bible focus on the prophetic meaning of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream. But I want to look at the context, and see what this story tells us of Daniel, his friends, his boss, and his God. (see text here: https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Daniel+2&version=NIV )

First, let’s look at the extraordinary presumption of Nebuchadnezzar. (God will deal with him severely a few chapters later!) The ruler of the vast Babylonian empire, Nebuchadnezzar’s word is absolute. His whims and moods control the destinies of all his courtiers, as well as all the people under his domain. Princes, satraps, governors, advisers, military leaders, and common citizens all live in fear of his absolute power, even as they try to curry favor and rise among the ranks.

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Nebuchadnezzar is not (at this point) crazy; he is not a foolish man. He has led campaigns to destroy several strong enemies, and has wisely appointed a number of officials to administer his sprawling empire. Daniel (and his friends, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego) are among several captured youth who are being assimilated into this administration. But this story shows the beginning of Nebuchadnezzar’s descent into madness and humiliation. He has had a dream (some translations suggest it was a recurring nightmare) that disturbs him greatly. It has him agitated. It causes him to act in an irrational manner. He calls in all the magicians, enchanters, astrologers and sorcerers of the kingdom. He is desperate for answers.

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We don’t know how many various men (or even women) were called in, but they represent all the best minds of the entire Babylonian empire. And Nebuchadnezzar wants the impossible–not only are they to correctly interpret his strange dream; they are to do it without any clue about what happened in it! As they try to reason with their king, he accuses them of wanting to mislead him, and threatens them with death and the destruction of their homes and families! This is a very real threat– the king’s word is absolute, and his wrath inescapable. Nebuchadnezzar’s bizarre actions and irrational fear are signs of much worse to come. As powerful as he is, the king is plagued by insecurities throughout his reign. Pleasing, or even appeasing such a man must be like constantly walking a tightrope.

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The story seems to suggest that Daniel and his friends were not included in the first summons before Nebuchadnezzar. Perhaps they were still too young to be included; perhaps they were still in training. But it is clear that they will be included in the execution orders if they cannot please this tyrant. This marks the second trial faced by Daniel in his captivity, but it is the first time he comes to the forefront of Nebuchadnezzar’s notice. While the king raves and threatens his other counselors, he listens to Daniel’s plea for more time. In the end, he is awed by Daniel’s interpretation, by Daniel’s courage– and by the God Daniel serves.

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No matter what irrational situation we may face today, no matter what impossible task we are given; no matter who threatens us or makes ridiculous demands– God is more powerful. He causes kingdoms to rise and fall. He knows the future, and nothing is outside his control. Even the most dire circumstances and impossible situations can lead to opportunities …opportunities that showcase God’s omnipotence and sovereignty.

Daniel– A Life of Dangerous Prayer

When we hear about the Biblical story of Daniel, we usually hear only the small story of Daniel and the den of lions. Daniel was thrown into a den of lions for refusing to obey the king. God shut the mouths of the lions and Daniel was saved. It is an amazing, miraculous, even incredible story. But what makes Daniel’s story truly amazing is to see it in perspective. I’d like to spend a couple of days looking at the larger picture of Daniel’s life.

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Daniel, like Jacob or Hannah, was an ordinary person– yet he was different, too. Daniel was from the line of kings and the royal household of Israel. He was strong and intelligent, among the elite young men of the land. According to the Bible, he was also gifted with the ability to interpret dreams and visions– a gift of extraordinary importance that set him apart from others. In that sense, he is more of a “Bible Hero” than those we have looked at in the past few weeks.

But Daniel was also a slave– a captive who was ripped from his homeland and taken by force to serve in the court of the Babylonian king. He was a stranger in a strange land; he walked a very dangerous line of trying to keep the favor of the king while dealing with very powerful and resentful enemies among the king’s other courtiers. Daniel stood apart–there is little mention of a family in Daniel’s story– Daniel faced many of his trials alone (except for God). And, while Daniel survives many extraordinary trials, he never receives the kind of promise or fulfillment that we saw in the lives of Hannah or Jacob. Daniel spends most of his life as a captive. He never gets to go back to his homeland. He never gets to see the fulfillment of his great vision– in fact, he asks for clarification, and is simply told to go his way–he will understand at the end of time.

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But Daniel has a lot to teach us about prayer– it’s power, it’s peril, and it’s promise.

In the first chapter of the Book of Daniel, we are told a very little about Daniel’s background and how he ends up in the service of the king. https://biblia.com/bible/esv/Dan%201 One little detail that stands out today, in light of our recent study of Jacob, is that Daniel is given a new name– not by God, but by the Babylonian official who is his new “boss”. Daniel is to be known as Belteshazzar– “Protect the life of the King”. Daniel is used by God to protect, and even warn, the foreign kings who have taken him captive. Daniel faithfully serves his oppressors– he does not seek to betray them or plot revenge against them. But the new name doesn’t stick– just as we still know Jacob by his old name (and the nation he founded by his God-given name), we know Daniel by his original name–“God is my Judge.”

Daniel’s first trial comes when he and his friends are selected for potential service to Nebuchadnezzar. They are to be trained and fed at the king’s own palace. They are to be assimilated into Babylonian culture, history, laws, etc. But Daniel refuses to be “defiled” by the royal food and wine. Instead, he and his companions ask for a diet of plain vegetables and water. Much has been made of this– entire diets and healthy living books have been based on just this simple request. I think such plans miss the bigger picture. Daniel’s request wasn’t about veggies or “strength training.” It wasn’t about eating smarter or being stronger and healthier than the other captives. It was about obedience to God AND to the very authorities who were offering the food from the king’s table.

There was nothing nutritionally “wrong” with the king’s food or wine, nor any particular virtue in the vegetables Daniel requested. But there were at least three good, Biblical reasons why Daniel may have refused to eat the king’s food. First, the Babylonian customs called for sacrifice to their gods–even human sacrifice in some cases! But much of the meat, fruit, and grain offered at the king’s table may have come from the temples. Food that had been ritually “offered” to the gods would be fit for the table of the king. But Daniel would not want to eat the food offered to these other, false gods– it would suggest that Daniel agreed that these gods were worthy of the sacrifices that had been offered– including infants. Better to eat plain food of any type than food that had religious implications. Second, the food was likely to be non-Kosher. God’s people were to be distinct, including in their diet. There were several types of foods forbidden to the Jews that would likely be on the daily menu of the palace–not just the foods themselves, but the way they were prepared. It’s not that these foods were not edible or nutritious, but God wanted his people to demonstrate discipline and obedience. Daniel did not want to compromise or cause trouble on a daily basis rejecting first this dish, then questioning that one…easier by far to simply request what he knew was in line with God’s ways. Finally, Daniel was being offered rich and decadent food while many of his fellow Israelites were starving in their captivity. To stuff himself full of the best food in the land would not change their circumstances– but it would change Daniel’s heart. This was more important than any particular diet. Daniel did not claim that his requested diet of vegetables would make him stronger or wiser or healthier than the others– he trusted that God would sustain him to be at least as strong and healthy as anyone else. And God did more!

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It is important, also, to note that Daniel did not defy the king or demand special treatment. He won the respect of the official in whose charge he was being kept. He even helped the official overcome his fear of the king. Why is this important? Daniel was in a difficult and dangerous position. He was a captive– a slave in a strange land– with a golden opportunity. He was chosen to be in the elite group of young people who could serve with power and influence in the land of their oppressors. Daniel, in fear or seeking his own advancement, could have trusted to his own wits and the favor of the Babylonians. He could have abandoned his commitment to serve God in favor of serving the immediate whims of those around him. He could have determined that in his new situation, he should adapt to the new rules, even those that contradicted God’s word. Or, he could have been defiant and arrogant–demanding that the Babylonians recognize all the customs of his native land, including his Kosher diet. He could have encouraged his friends to lead a rebellion; he could have gone on a hunger strike to protest the king’s food. But the king had never commanded that the young people eat his food– he had merely offered it as an incentive. Daniel used wisdom and tact. He won the trust of the official by suggesting a trial period of ten days to see if the “alternative” food plan would prove acceptable. He didn’t place his trust in his own actions– he placed his trust in the true Judge, and offered faithful service– both to God and to Nebuchadnezzar.

No matter our circumstances today– whether we are in a palace or a prison; whether we are free or enslaved– God sees us. He will judge, not only the actions of our oppressors, but our response to oppression and hardship, and mistreatment (or our oppression and mistreatment of others). May we, like Daniel, turn to the true Judge, and walk worthy of His Name today.

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