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Reading: Obadiah 17-
God Promises Hope to His People
Last Christmas a board game re-
We’re fascinated by stories of escape. The more hopeless the situation appears the better we like it. Will they succeed in escaping when all the odds of success are firmly stacked against the heroes? Our attention is gripped. I wonder if there is anyone here this morning who has not seen the film "The Great Escape" and there are plenty of other films that address similar scenarios.
And escape is one of the themes that Obadiah brings in towards the end of his short little book, only the escape he has in mind is much more significant than the escape from a concentration camp! Obadiah writes about escape on the Day of the Lord. According to Obadiah some will escape condemnation on that day, yes, some but not all.
The term "the Day of the Lord" appears in both the OT and the NT and it refers to a dramatic intervention of the LORD God in the affairs of men calling them to account and securing justice. Throughout history the LORD has acted like this on a number of occasions and each one of these interventions serves as a precursor to the final great "Day of the LORD" which will take place at the end of human history as we know it.
Confronted by such divine interventions which call us to account the question naturally arises: How will the nations get on in the Day of the LORD? How will they survive it? How will they escape being condemned and destroyed in it?
These smaller preparatory "days of the Lord" highlight the reality and the seriousness of divine retribution and urge us to consider how we will survive that great and final Day of the LORD.
Are you prepared for that day?
As Obadiah speaks about the Day of the LORD he makes it clear that there will be contrasting outcomes for the nations; in that day, for example, the House of Jacob will fare differently to the House of Esau even though the two are brothers, twin brothers.
Edom (the House of Esau) had, as we have seen, turned against God’s people and had tried to secure the annihilation of Israel/Judah (the House of Jacob) but it failed and it is Edom that is doomed to complete destruction. There is a means of escape provided on Mount Zion but Edom will not be able to benefit from it.
Israel/Judah is however not unaffected by this Day of the LORD. But the judgment that falls upon Israel/Judah is not that of total destruction but rather it is a judgment of discipline. The LORD provides a way of escape on Mount Zion and yet this escape will only benefit a remnant, a small part of the nation. For those of you who are familiar with the Bible you will know that this is a recurring pattern throughout the OT as God has dealt with his people: there is a difference between outwardly belonging to God’s people and having the spiritual reality that exhibits a true belonging.
If the LORD provided a way of escape on Mt Zion it was incumbent upon the individual to take it. It was not enough to simply say to yourself "I belong to the house of Jacob, therefore I must be OK." And it is not enough for us to say "I go to a church, so I must be OK too" – we too must make sure that we have individually availed ourselves of the one way of escape that has been provided for us, we must personally exercise faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Just as the way of escape provided on Mt Zion was linked to holiness and so too is the way of escape in Jesus Christ. We are never to imagine that faith in Jesus is simply an insurance policy that allows us to continue living exactly as we had before. Genuine faith in Jesus is a living faith that is of necessity accompanied by the fruit of a changed life as the Holy Spirit applies the Christ’s work to our lives. We are not saved on account of those changes but we won’t be saved without them!
And why is this the case?
Because the LORD has spoken!
Salvation as Escape
This is by no means the only place in the Bible that salvation is referred to in terms of an escape. Indeed the prophet Joel expressed himself using very similar language:
Joel 2:32 "And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved. For in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the LORD has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the LORD calls."
In the NT Jesus did not always say the kind of things people wanted to hear. Sometimes he spoke in stinging terms, terms that were designed to awaken and to challenge the spiritually dormant as when he castigated the scribes and Pharisees for their hypocritical religiosity:
Mt.23:33 "You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?"
Similarly the apostle Paul addressing those Jews who were confident that simply being a Jew was enough to please God warned that this was not the case:
Rom.2:3 "Do you suppose, O man—you who judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself—that you will escape the judgment of God?"
The writer to the Hebrews too took up the escape theme as he warned against complacency and indifference to the gospel offers of salvation in and through Jesus Christ:
Heb.2:3 "how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard,"
Heb.12:25 "See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven."
The cumulative effect of all this is to teach us that in the coming judgment we simply must escape the condemnation coming the way of sinners. The great news for us today is to know that that is possible! God himself has provided a way of escape for us. But it is a way of escape that we must take. We take it by confessing our sin to God and calling on Jesus to save us.
I must press you on this: Have you done that? Have you ever in your life spoken to God in this way? Have you ever told him that left to your own devices you deserve to be forever excluded from his family and from his heaven because of your sin? Have you ever asked him to forgive you your sin and to make you fit for heaven? Have you ever asked Jesus to be the Lord and Saviour of your life?
If you have not then do you really think you will escape being sentenced on that great day? Do you really think God will smile on you when you have stubbornly refused his offers of salvation?
Take this way of escape and take it today!
OT Descriptions of Salvation
After Obadiah announced that an escape would be provided for some on Mt Zion he went on to describe this salvation in that very down-
The NT too speaks about the people of God (that is, those saved by the Lord Jesus Christ) as having a bright and glorious future. The OT descriptions of salvation blessing are picked up and applied but not in a woodenly literalistic fashion. The OT vision is appreciated and transformed it into something far greater.
Sometimes people have tried to put such focus upon the descriptions of materialistic blessing in the OT that they then go on to suggest that this is what salvation is really all about in the Bible. But in this they are mistaken. The writers of the OT simply used a language that was readily understood – the reality that awaits us is far greater than any of those very earthy and materialistic descriptions that belong to the OT.
We can catch something of this as we look at how Obadiah immediately went on to talk about the house of Jacob "possessing their own possessions" while Edom was to suffer dreadful, catastrophic loss. Obadiah explained what he meant by this as he continued to describe how Israel would take back possession of the lands she had formerly owned but lost.
In the history of God’s people in the OT the issue of land figures very prominently.
Abraham was called to leave his father’s homeland and go to a place of the LORD’s choosing. The land was promised to Abraham though he was only ever able to live there as something of a temporary resident. Abraham’s descendants would suffer long years of slavery in Egypt before they would be freed and led to the borders of the land God had promised to them.
Instead of entering the land the people in Moses’ day demonstrated a complete lack of faith in the promises of God that they were punished with a further delay of 40 years before they would finally cross the river Jordan and enter the land of Canaan. Even then the problems weren’t over – again due to lack of faith Israel failed to drive out the wicked inhabitants of the country and so was unable to bring the entire territory under Israelite control.
If you read the OT carefully you will notice that there is a considerable difference between the land God promised to Israel and the territory Israel actually controlled. That had been the case for hundreds of years but now here Obadiah prophesies his enormously encouraging message:
"the house of Jacob shall possess her possessions" or "the house of Jacob will possess its inheritance." (NIV)
This is then spelt out in a little more detail in vv.19+20 where Obadiah lists a whole variety of geographic locations. The problem most of us have is that the names don’t mean anything to us. So let me explain.
Remember Israel was at that moment greatly suffering at the hands of the nations and was largely going to be deported far away to Babylon for the next 70 or so years. What Obadiah had to speak into such an unpromising context was remarkably encouraging and positive. All the old lands were going to be brought back into Israel’s possession and new places added too!
The Negeb was the name of desert region in the far south of Israel – to the east this region bordered the lands of Edom. Israel’s territory was going to expand at the expense of this ancient enemy.
The Shephelah, or the lowlands, was an undulating area to the west of Jerusalem and bordering on the land that belonged to the Philistines another long-
Ephraim, Gilead and Samaria were all areas of Israel that had been lost at one time or another to invading armies – these territories were to be retaken.
Zarephath was beyond Israel’s borders up in the NW on the Mediterranean coast – once again expansion is in view.
The exact location of Sepharad is unknown. It possibly refers to any place to which Jews had been dispersed but from where they were now to return to take up residence again in the Promised Land.
To a Jew living through those dark days these promises of possessing the land would have been amongst the most important promises he might ever hear! All that had been and was being lost would be restored as restitution took place – all that and more lay in the future of the people of God!
We’ve already referred to the prophet Joel well he used a very different picture to establish the same fundamental truth that God would make good what seemed to have gone so wrong when he wrote:
But even with all this emphasis on the physical possession and the associated blessing of possessing the land we must not imagine that that summed up the salvation hopes of the OT believer. And if it did not satisfy his hopes and longings we must not ever imagine that such material or geographical blessings will ever satisfy the longings of our hearts either.
This is how the writer to the Hebrews explains it. Talking about the patriarchs he wrote:
Yes, land was important but there was a spiritual reality of oh so much greater importance. This same author referred to that reality in the following chapter where he referred to Mt Zion but not now as a place in the Middle East but as the city of God, the heavenly Jerusalem – yes, he writes, we have come even to Jesus himself. And Jesus will always and must always outweigh and out-
So Obadiah’s little book contains a host of interesting and helpful truths that we would do well to understand and to take on board.
We must hear that God takes sin seriously and that he will call all to account.
We must realise he is particularly concerned with his own people and he treasures them. Persecution of his people is a serious matter.
There is only one safe place to hide when God comes calling. We can’t rely upon our status, our reputation, our location or our abilities – none of these will provide us with any security at all. But God has provided an "escape" from the rigors of his judgment and from the sentence of eternal damnation in hell. That way of escape comes not from him overlooking sin but by his dealing with it once and for all in the person of his Son Jesus Christ as Jesus died on the cross for his people.
The current situation of the believer may be difficult in the extreme and the immediate future may be even worse but the long term future of the believer is bright being filled to the brim and running over with glorious hope.
The Book of Obadiah contrasts two different people – which are you most like?
Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will "escape" not with an escapism that tries to pretend that things aren’t what they really are but with an escape that has been really and truly secured for sinners by the Saviour of the World.