Welcome to the Mountjoy Ministries Blog

This blog was authored by Bryan W. Sheldon, author and Bible teacher. His books are listed below. The studies in the blog are offered in the desire that they may be helpful in directing readers to the truths contained in the Bible.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Life of Jesus of Nazareth

The Birth of Messiah's Herald: John the Baptiser

John’s father, Zacharias was a priest of the course of Abia, the eighth of the 24 courses into which the priesthood was divided. His testimony was that he was a good man. As was customary with the rank and file priests, he served in the Temple for two weeks of the year, most likely with a six month interval between them. During one of his periods of service something both remarkable and wonderful happened. After some 400 years of silence, God spoke – He sent a communication from heaven. It was not directed to the High Priest, or to one of the chief priests, but to Zacharias who was on duty in the Temple - in the Holy Place burning incense.

Model of the Temple
His tour of duty had started unremarkably. He had arrived on the Friday, as was usual, and passed through the triple gate at the foot of the Southern wall of the Temple. This was the gate reserved for the priests’ use – the general public gained access through other gates. Climbing up through the priests’ passageway under the Herodian extensions he exited into the sunshine on the Temple Mount facing the one of the Huldah gates. He passed through the Huldah gate reserved for the priests, crossed the court of Gentiles, entered the court of Israel and skirted the court of prayer to reach the vestment keeper’s office which was located in the building at the side of the court of priests. There he collected his priestly robes before making his way down the staircase to the sacred baths reserved for the priesthood to bathe and robe; and thence to the hall of the priests where he deposited his everyday clothes in one of the 96 lockers. All this took place on the Friday for the courses of priests changed on the Sabbath. His place of residence during his tour of duty was to be the ‘chamber of the hearth’, an important building in close proximity to the court of priests. The ground level was the priests’ dining room and the upper level is where they slept.

For a normal day, the captain of the Temple called them at cock-crowing, which is 3 a.m. After eating in the dining room, Zacharias left by the side door and joined other priests to share a sacramental meal and to say prayers. It was only after all proper preparations had been completed that the duty priests would report to the hall of polished stones where lots were cast to allocate individual tasks, for example, who would kill the sacrifice, who sprinkle the blood, who sweep the inner altar, who clean the lampstand, who burn the incense, etc. Zacharias was allocated a ‘once in a lifetime’ honour of burning the incense in the Holy Place at the time of prayer.

He was joined by two others who cleaned the altar and kindled the fire but they left on completion of their duties leaving Zacharias alone to burn the incense and recite the prayers of intercession. Although the great door into the Temple building (the Gate of the Golden Vine) was open, there was a curtain which would have prevented others from seeing what went on inside. It was when the smoke of the incense was rising he saw in the cloud an angel on the right side of the golden altar. This, according to R. Nathan and Simeon ben Asai[1], was the place where the Shekinah had talked to Moses.[2] He had never burnt incense in the Holy Place before, but he knew the appearance of the angel was unusual. Also, fresh in his mind was the warning he had received regarding the correct procedure to be followed, for all priests were aware of the punishment delivered to Nadab and Abihu who offered ‘strange fire’.[3]  So it was not surprising that the angel first said, “Fear not” before giving him a message regarding the birth of a son – the forerunner of the Messiah.

Zacharias must have been staggered at the encounter - an angelic visitor announcing the birth of the fore-runner of the Messiah; and that to a humble, albeit godly priest, who was blessed with a similarly godly wife. Their recorded testimony was: they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless”.  (Luke 1:5,6 )

The angel was Gabriel (the might of God), the same one who had announced to Daniel that Messiah would appear 483 years after the edict to rebuild the Temple. To Zacharias he announced that Messiah’s appearance was imminent, and declared his ‘not yet conceived’ son was to be a symbolic fulfilment of the last recorded prophetic utterance (by Malachi); Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD:  And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers.” (Mal. 4:5,6) Luke’s record is detailed: “… the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your prayer is heard; and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth. For he will be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink. He will also 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. He will also go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, ‘to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children,’ and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (Luke 1:13–17)

Zacharias could not believe it, for although he and Elizabeth had been praying for a son for a considerable time, he had given up hope. So he asked for a sign, as if the appearance of one of God’s mighty angels was not enough! He got his wish – but not the kind of sign he was hoping for. He was struck dumb and deaf[4], disabilities that would not be reversed until the words of Gabriel were confirmed by events. When he emerged from the Holy Place he was expected to pronounce the Numbers 6:24-26 benediction on the people.[5] However, to the consternation of those waiting outside at the time of prayer he was unable to fulfil this last part of his morning service.  When, at the end of seven days he came to the end of his tour of duty he returned home to a city in Judah.  

As for Elizabeth, she conceived and went into seclusion. Because the child was to be so remarkable a son, so strict a Nazarite, and so famous a prophet, Elizabeth sequestered herself in case she should defile herself in any way, and thereby contract any uncleanness upon the Nazarite in her womb. This was in harmony with the instruction given by the angel of the LORD to the mother of the other Nazarite by divine appointment, Samson, Now therefore, please be careful not to drink wine or similar drink, and not to eat anything unclean. (Judges 13:4)

More Next Time

[1] Qutoed in Halkut
[2] Exod.30:6
[3] Lev.10:1
[4] Luke 1:62
[5] Tamid 7:2 (D)(Mishnah)

Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Birth of Christ (Continued)

Was there any expectation of a Messiah at the time of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth

Students of the Old Testament were familiar with those times when God had provided a prophetic indicator of great deliverances.  For  example,  because  of  His  words  to  Abraham,  Israel  might  have anticipated a Moses after 400 years in Egypt. Certainly, Daniel was able to mark the end of the Babylonian captivity after 70 years, because of the prophecy of Jeremiah.  Therefore, those who poured over the pages of the T’nach at the beginning of the Christian era would have been aware of Daniel’s prophecy which spoke of a period of 69 ‘sevens’ of years, that is 483 years, from the edict for the rebuilding of Jerusalem after the Babylonian exile to the coming of ‘Messiah the Prince’. These scholars looked for any indications of the unveiling of the Messiah.
And for those that had eyes to see, there were signs that the time of Messiah had come. There had been that incident when an elderly priest had testified that during the ceremony of the burning of the incense, he had seen an angel in the Temple, who had brought a message of the coming of the Messiah. The angel was the very same Gabriel who had been instrumental in giving the timetable of Messiah’s coming to Daniel. Events surrounding the angelic visit helped to confirm the veracity of the message. The old priest was struck dumb and a son was miraculously born to the old couple, on whose birth the old priest was able to talk again.  Friends and neighbours spread the news throughout Judea.
Six months after the birth of the son of the priest, the ‘light and glory of God’ shone above the hills around Bethlehem. This light, the Shekinah of God, had been visible, even in Babylonia, where the eastern stargazers marked it and understood its significance. Temple shepherds, who had witnessed the Shekinah glory, reported further angelic messages of the birth of the Messiah.
Then there was the testimony of those who were recognised to be under the inspiration of the Spirit of God. Some six weeks after the shepherds had seen the Shekinah glory of God, the parents of the baby identified by heaven as the Messiah, went up to the Temple to fulfil their obligations - the offering of sacrifice for the purification of the mother, and the payment of money for the redemption of the first-born. Following the priestly benediction on the infant, a godly man, Simeon, entered the court of prayer, held the child in His arms and declared the baby to be God’s Messiah. This man was not only a student of the Scriptures and therefore aware of the timing of the coming of the Messiah, but also a godly man who had received an indication from God that he would not die until he saw the ‘Consolation of Israel’. The prophetess, Anna, likewise declared Him to be her Messiah. Nearly two years after these events, the eastern stargazers, who had seen from afar the Shekinah glory over the hills of Bethlehem, arrived in Jerusalem on a visit and ‘troubled’ both Herod and Jerusalem with the question, ‘Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?’ (Matt.2:2)
Herod, clearly aware of the Messianic expectations of the nation at that time, called some of the Sanhedrin and asked where the Messiah was to be born. They identified Bethlehem, which community suffered a great tragedy some time later when Herodian soldiers slaughtered all of the children younger than twenty-five months. It was Herod’s attempt, no doubt prompted by a higher, evil, power, to kill the young Messiah.

In Conclusion
To poor, sinful, demon-possessed Israel Jesus came as their Messiah and offered deliverance and peace. How different would their future have been had they accepted Him. But sin makes a person foolish, and that applied to Israel’s leaders at that time.
However, the offer of deliverance and peace is still being made today—but now to individuals. Let not any be foolish and reject Christ’s offer of mercy, especially at Christmas time. After all, He can change your life for the better!