1 Easter There d be no Easter without God s faithfulness to Israel Easter today is such a confusing mess of secular, pagan and Christian rituals that it s almost become meaningless. So would it help going back to where it all began and seeing Easter through the eyes of a 1 st century Jew? Imagine being a Jew, then, and you re sitting on the riverbank listening to John the Baptist, and he announces in John 1:15 (from the Living Bible) that Someone is coming who is greater by far than I am, for he existed long before I did. Would a little bell ring in your head that John was talking about the Messiah? Well, it certainly rang bells in the heads of the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem, because they sent priests and Levites to ask John who he thought he was (verse 19). John replies immediately in verse 20, I am not the Messiah. So who was he instead, then, the priests wanted to know? And that s when you heard John say in verse 23, I am the voice of one calling in the desert, Make straight the way for the Lord. Well, that rang a loud bell, because any Jew, or Jewish priest worth his credentials, would know where that came from. It was a prophecy straight out of Isaiah 40:3 about the coming of the Messiah and someone announcing his arrival just before he came. And if John was right in saying that HE was that someone, then it meant the Messiah was arriving soon. So what would you be thinking as a Jew listening to this conversation between John and the Jewish priests? Would it make you want to leap up and shout with joy, He s on his way, the Messiah is coming, because this was the greatest news ever? Well, you d probably look at the priests first to see how they reacted, but all they said to John in verse 25 was: Why then do you baptize if you are not the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet? And that s when John said in verse 26, I baptize with water, but among you stands one who comes after me, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. Now that was news, because John was saying the Messiah was standing among them. The Messiah, in other words, had already arrived.
2 But John wasn t leaping up and shouting, Hey everybody, the Messiah s here, the Messiah s here. Actually, he didn t seem that excited at all. Instead he d been travelling all over the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, Luke 3:3, along with a dire warning that unless the Jews produced fruit in keeping with repentance every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire, verses 8-9. In other words, get your act together, my fellow Jews, or else. But why would John be taking such a strident tone? Because he knew he was the voice of Isaiah 40:3 whose job it was to cry out, I m thunder in the desert: Make the road straight for God (The Message). What did Isaiah mean by that, though? Well, again, any Jew worth his calling knew that God had called Israel to be his servant in whom I will display my glory, Isaiah 49:3 - but, God adds in verse 4, I have laboured to no purpose; I have spent my strength in vain and for nothing. For all God s efforts with Israel, and his patience through the centuries, and all his blessings and warnings, Israel had miserably failed in its calling. Looking back over the road they d built for God, it was anything but straight. Instead, it was crooked, ragged and potholed. Israel and the Jews had done a horrible job of displaying God s glory to the world. And now, according to John, the Messiah had arrived - but look at the state the Jewish nation was in. It was a pathetic little outpost being ruled by pagans. Well, suddenly it all hit home, and like thousands of other Jews from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan, Matthew 3:5, you too confessed your sins, and you too, verse 11, were baptized with water for repentance. It was like a national conscience being struck at the same time, as people poured out to John for forgiveness and the washing away of their sins. And they were willing to clean up their lives in whatever ways John suggested - like the tax collectors no longer overtaxing people, and soldiers no longer extorting money off people, or accusing them falsely (Luke 3:9-14). John didn t hold back either, because he knew his job was to get the Jewish nation in shape for their Messiah, and to do that some serious repentance was required. The Jews needed to make straight paths for him (Luke 3:3) - iron out the kinks, in other words, that had got them into this sad state of affairs in the first place. So John carried on yelling out his message of repentance and warning to the Jews to get a straighter path built for the Messiah, or else. And not a moment too soon either, because guess who arrived the very next day.
3 The next day, John 1:29, John saw Jesus coming toward him, and he cried out, Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. So here he was, the Messiah himself in person, at which point John s immediate reaction is to cry out in verse 31, the reason I came baptizing with water was that he (the Messiah) might be revealed to Israel. Why Israel? Because God s plan of salvation for the world was being done through Israel, so it was to Israel first that the Messiah was coming. And that s why John was aiming his thunder at the Jews. It was right in tune with Isaiah 49:5 too, that the Messiah would bring Jacob back to him and gather Israel to himself, because here it was happening already as thousands of Jews responded to John s call to repentance in preparation for the Messiah s arrival. It was only preparation, though, nothing more. A few Jews making a few changes wasn t nearly a big enough job for my servant, God says in Isaiah 49:6 Simply recovering the tribes of Jacob, and merely rounding up the strays of Israel was only the beginning. It was just a baby step toward what God really had in mind for his Messiah and Israel. What he really had in mind was the rest of verse 6: I m setting you up as a light for the nations so that my salvation becomes global. Isaiah makes it clear that it s through Israel and her Messiah that the world will be saved from its sin. It had always been God s plan, ever since his promise to Abraham and his descendants, to save the world through Israel, but here was Israel in the 1 st century desperately in need of saving from its own sin. No wonder, then, God sends John the Baptist to the Jews first, to strike at the heart of the Jewish conscience, because they needed some serious straightening out first. But the ultimate goal, as it had always been all through the Old Testament, was that in ISRAEL, Isaiah 40:5, the glory of the Lord will be revealed and all mankind together will see it. And John was thundering out these verses in Isaiah 40 to remind the Jews of all this, that it was through them that God s glory would be revealed to the whole world, and through them that the taking away of the sins of the world would be accomplished, which was exactly the point Jesus made in John 4:22, that Salvation is from the Jews. This isn t maybe what Christians want to hear at Easter, but it s clear from what Isaiah and John said, that it was only through the Jews that God s plan of salvation could continue. So it was crucial that the Jews be straightened out first - or there d be no Easter at all.
4 But imagine being a Jew and hearing all this, and thinking to yourself how on earth salvation can become global through you, or how the whole world will see the glory of God through you, and how on earth you can make a straight highway for God with all the mountains and valleys leveled off and all the rocks and ruts smoothed off beautifully for the Messiah s arrival, when you know you ve failed God miserably and your history of fulfilling his purpose has been abysmal. And yet here was John thundering away that this was exactly what you Jews needed to do, and right away too. But the Pharisees weren t the least bit impressed by John, because in their minds he was an uneducated oddity, so what right did this impostor have to even baptize people (John 1:24-25), let alone claim he was the voice of Isaiah 40? Well, John s answer in John 1:26 was embarrassing: I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know. So, first of all, John makes the shocking statement that the Messiah had already arrived, and these highly educated experts of scripture had totally missed it; and, secondly, why on earth were they questioning his right to baptize people, when baptizing people with water for the washing away of sins was exactly what the entire Jewish nation needed to hear? It should have taken the Pharisees right back to Isaiah 40 again, and the two verses at the start of the chapter leading up to the voice calling in the wilderness in verse 3. In The Message the first two verses sound like this: Comfort, oh comfort my people, says your God. Speak softly and tenderly to Jerusalem, but also make it very clear that she has served her sentence, that her sin is taken care of - forgiven. She s been punished enough and more than enough, and now it s over and done with. Or as the NIV phrases that last part, tell Jerusalem that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the Lord s hand double for all her sins. This was the news the Jews were longing to hear, that God had forgiven them, their sins had been paid for, and their punishment had come to an end, because it was their rebellion that had held up God s plan and their sins that had become a logjam halting the flow of God s salvation to the ends of the earth and their constant unfaithfulness to God that had dimmed the revelation of God s glory. So, yes, on the one hand John was issuing a serious call for national repentance, but he was also belting out a joy- filled message of forgiveness. And that was crucial, because it was only through the forgiveness of Israel s many sins and unfaithfulness to God that the plan of salvation could continue.
5 As a Jew, then, listening to John, all these echoes of prophecies from the Old Testament would be ringing in your ears, all of them implying that construction on God s superhighway of salvation to the whole world through Israel was about to be put back on track, because the Messiah was coming to remove the logjam and the obstruction that had been holding things up, the obstruction being Israel s sin. But the question still remained as to how Israel could remain on track, or how they could do a better job of their calling after they d been forgiven and baptized by John. What was to stop them going right back to the way they were? Their history wasn t exactly encouraging either. It was riddled with good intentions but always the same result. They d forget what God had called them for and end up being severely punished by God, and even being carted out of their land into slavery and their cities and temple destroyed. They could never get it right, or in Isaiah s terms, they could never construct a highway fit for our God (Isaiah 40:3, The Message). By the time Daniel woke up and realized the depths of what Israel had done in Daniel 9:1-4, the great highway that Israel could and should have been building to take God s salvation to the world had stumbled to a total halt. The Jews were in slavery in Babylon, Jerusalem was in ruins and the temple destroyed, and God s name carried no weight at all to the nations around. If nothing had been done at this point, no Christian would be celebrating Easter today, because construction on God s superhighway of salvation had stopped. The crew and their equipment had been taken to another site, and it would have remained that way if Daniel hadn t realized the seriousness of the situation and prayed his heart out that God would forgive them for defying his instructions and ending up in the worst mess they d ever been in. He appeals to God s covenant promises and God s compassion, and for God to do something. The answer he got from God in Daniel 9:24 was immediate: Seventy sevens are set aside for your people and for your holy city to throttle rebellion, stop sin, make up for all the mess you ve made, set things straight forever, bring an end to that whole era of prophecy, and anoint the most Holy (of Holies). Apparently, God was giving the Jews another chance, an extension in time of seventy sevens to fulfill their calling, because he was so pleased with Daniel for trusting him to be faithful to his plan of salvation through Israel.
6 It would still be a rocky road, though, according to Daniel 9: The Jews would rebuild the temple and the city of Jerusalem, but along the way an anointed one would be cut off, and Jerusalem would be ruined and the temple destroyed again. So again, the Jews would be up against all sorts of opposition as they continued work on God s highway of salvation, which raises the question again, of course, as to how they would succeed any better with this extended time they d been given, when they d be faced with the same pressure and suffering they d experienced before. It was great having this extra time to get the job done, but how would it help if it would all end in failure again? And for the next four hundred years of so until John the Baptist the Jews really struggled too - through invasions, wars, revolutions won and lost, their temple abused and rededicated, and humiliating subjugation under the iron fist of the Roman Empire. And at no point during this period was there any sign or hope of the Jews fulfilling Daniel 9:24 or any help from God either. So, again, no Christian would be celebrating Easter if things had continued like this forever. And to top that off, John the Baptist then comes roaring out of the desert yelling to his fellow Jews to get themselves cleaned up and ready for the Messiah, or else. Did this mean, then, that the extension of time the Jews had been given from God s answer to Daniel s prayer was almost up and approaching a deadline? God did say in Daniel it was a set period of time he d given them, and John sounded really urgent too, so was this it, one last chance to get their act together, or face the dire consequences? In a mood of urgency and desperation, therefore, thousands poured out to John, and that s when they heard about the sign John had been given by the one who d sent him to baptize people in John 1:33. The sign was this: The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is he who will baptize with the Holy Spirit. Now that really was good news, because the Jews knew from Ezekiel 36:27 that one day, God said, I ll put my Spirit in you and make it possible for you to do what I tell you and live by my commands (The Message). It was the Spirit that would enable them to fulfill their calling at last, and John had just mentioned in John 1:32 that he d seen the Spirit descend on Jesus, and that Jesus would also baptize them with the Spirit too. So, just when it looked like their time was up and still no hope of fulfilling Daniel 9:24, suddenly a solution was being offered.
7 First of all, the Messiah would remove the logjam of Israel s sin that had been holding up construction, and secondly, he d provide the equipment to enable the Jews to get back to their calling in Isaiah 40:3-5 - of making straight in the wilderness a highway for our God, so that the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all mankind together will see it. It meant that God s great construction program to bless all nations through Israel and her Messiah would be back in gear again. And this time it would not sputter and grind to a halt as it had in Daniel s day, because this new equipment they d been given in their baptism with the Spirit would power them through the tallest mountains and deepest valleys and into the most rugged terrain you could think of to create the beautiful highway God described in Daniel 9:24. And this is the message you heard as you sat on the riverbank listening to John. All sorts of echoes of Old Testament prophecies would be rattling round your head, that all seemed to be coming together at this very moment. And it was all happening because God hadn t given up on you. He was giving you the chance, and the equipment now too, to put his plan of salvation back on track, so that it could start reaching out to the world again, no matter what the obstacles might be. And God wasn t doing it any other way, either. He was sticking to his plan to make his salvation global through Israel. Salvation is from the Jews, and thousands upon thousands of Christians through the centuries would realize there d be no Easter to celebrate if God hadn t made that promise to Daniel and sent John the Baptist to start the process of global salvation rolling again. Does this help in making Easter meaningful, by going back to the story leading up to it? The story shows that Easter does not begin with the death and raising of Jesus, it begins with the story of God s faithfulness to his covenant promise to Abraham, and God sticking faithfully to taking salvation to the world through Abraham s descendants, no matter how badly those descendants failed him. And because of God s faithfulness to his covenant, and because God never gave up on Israel, and because God got Israel back on track through John the Baptist and the Messiah, and because of the Messiah s baptism with the Spirit that got construction on God s highway of salvation going again, we are now celebrating Easter. We are celebrating the highway of salvation reaching us, thanks to God s faithfulness, Daniel s prayer, John the Baptist s call to the Jews to repent, and the Messiah s fulfillment of every condition necessary for the highway of salvation to never be obstructed again by any human failing.
8 And when the Holy Spirit then came as promised, and three thousand Jews were the first to respond, providing the first Spirit- filled construction crew to start work on God s highway, Peter used the occasion to go back into history and tell the same story. Indeed, he said in Acts 3:24-26, all the prophets from Samuel on have spoken of these days. And you are heirs of the prophets and the covenant God made with your fathers. He said to Abraham, Through your offspring all peoples on earth will be blessed. When God raised up his servant, he sent him first to you to bless you by turning each of you from your wicked ways. In other words, we wouldn t be Christians today if God hadn t stuck to his covenant with Abraham and his descendants, Israel and the Jews. We wouldn t be celebrating Easter either if God hadn t stayed true to his promises to bless all nations with salvation through Israel. Easter wouldn t even exist if God hadn t sent John the Baptist to get the Jews repenting in readiness for the Messiah, and salvation would never have reached us if the Messiah hadn t given the Jews first chance at receiving the Holy Spirit to enable them to turn from their wicked ways, and not make the same mistakes they made before. It was because God gave the Jews yet another chance in the books of Isaiah and Daniel to make his highway of salvation straight and true, that eventually it reached us as well. But God did say in Isaiah 40:5 that he would reveal his glory through Israel, and the whole world would one day see it. It s in Israel s story, therefore, that his glory has been revealed, his glory being his faithfulness. That s why John was so excited about the Messiah baptizing with the Spirit, because everything predicted and prophesied in Israel s story would now be built into reality, so that the whole world would see God s superhighway of salvation taking shape, and come to realize the glory of God s faithfulness. John knew he was just preparing the way, or preparing the crew for construction work to begin again. He would never get to see what the highway would look like when at last the Spirit came, but here we are now living that story, thanks in total to God s faithfulness to Israel.