Facing the end with disbelief

Bible readings

  • Acts 26:19-29;
  • Jeremiah 38:14-28

Introduction

“Unbelief puts our circumstance between us and God, but faith puts God between us and our circumstances.” (F.B. Meyer).  

Disobedience is the root of unbelief. Unbelief is the moral resistance of the human will.  Disbelief and the pride of independence lead to rebellion. We just want to be in control.  On the other hand, faith is obedience and submission, so faith breeds obedience. 

The less one trusts, the more one disobeys; the more he disobeys, the less he trusts. We see this clearly played out in the life of  Zedekiah, the last king of Judah.  May it not be said of anyone here this morning.

Was Zedekiah an unbeliever?

During the three months reign of Jehoiachin, the Babylonians invaded the land and took some valuable articles for the temple.  They also captured the king and his family and took them to Babylon.  They made his uncle, Zedekiah, king in his place.  

Not long into his time as king, Zedekiah chose to seek help from Egypt and decided to stop paying tributes to Nebuchadnezzar, who in turn sent his forces to Jerusalem to besiege the city.

What did Zedekiah do?  Jeremiah 21 records his actions.  He sent his personal adviser and a high ranking priest to Jeremiah, and this was not the only time Hezekiah did this.  The purpose?  He wanted Jeremiah to enquire of the Lord what is going to happen.  He argued:  

Perhaps the Lord will perform wonders for us as in times past so that he will withdraw from us. (Jeremiah 21:2, NIV)

He asked Jeremiah to pray for him!  

Zedekiah was not really without faith.  But what sort of faith did he have?  A faith that asked for miracles.  It is a “perhaps” faith.  If God does what I want, I will believe in Him. If He takes away my cancer, if He spares my father’s life, if He gives me the promotion, if He gives us rain — only then will I believe.

What answer did he get?  A miracle?  No, this is what he got: 

‘This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: I am about to turn against you the weapons of war that are in your hands, which you are using to fight the king of Babylon and the Babylonians who are outside the wall besieging you. And I will gather them inside this city.  After that, declares the Lord, I will give Zedekiah king of Judah, his officials and the people in this city who survive the plague, sword and famine, into the hands of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon and to their enemies who want to kill them. He will put them to the sword; he will show them no mercy or pity or compassion.’ (Jeremiah 21:4, 7, NIV)

What was Zedekiah’s reaction?  Disbelief!  Was he an unbeliever?  Not really, but the little faith he had, became indifferent to the Word of God.  The less one trusts, the more one disobeys; the more he disobeyed, the less he trusted.  

Bad company corrupts good character

God had patience, as He shows long-suffering with us too.  He commanded Jeremiah to make a yoke with crossbars and tie it with straps around his neck, and then to go and knock on the door of the palace.  This happened in the time between the first and second raid of Jerusalem.  A military hick-up elsewhere called for action, and the Babylonians temporarily withdrew from the city.  It was a time of reprieve for Hezekiah.  This was God’s message to Hezekiah: 

With my great power and outstretched arm, I made the earth and its people and the animals that are on it, and I give it to anyone I please. (Jeremiah 27:5, NIV)

This message was to reinforce the power of God over all political powers, and it was aimed at a man in two minds to fix his hope on Almighty God.  The application was clear:  

Why will you and your people die by the sword, famine and plague with which the Lord has threatened any nation that will not serve the king of Babylon? (Jeremiah 27:12–13, NIV)

Did the king heed to this advice?  He was surrounded by false prophets whom he preferred to listen to.  Hananiah was the head honcho who took the yoke off Jeremiah’s neck and broke it with these words: 

“This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: ‘I will break the yoke of the king of Babylon. Within two years I will bring back to this place all the articles of the Lord’s house that Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon removed from here and took to Babylon. (Jeremiah 28:2–3, NIV)

No, they are not God’s words.  They were misleading words from a misleading prophet.  Hananiah died just a few months later true to the prophecy of Jeremiah, yet Hezekiah still did not make up his mind.

Many false prophets compete for our faith.  Charles Templeton met Billy Graham in 1945 and the two became friends.  They ministered together during a 1946 YFC evangelistic tour in Europe.  By 1948 Templeton’s life and worldview were beginning to go in a different direction than Graham’s. In1957, he publicly declared that he had become an agnostic and he wrote a book Farewell to God.  He wrote:

‘I oppose the Christian Church because [it]…propound(s) and advocate(s) beliefs that are outdated, demonstrably untrue, and often, in their various manifestations, deleterious to individuals and to society.

In a conversation with Billy Graham sometime later, he said, 

“But, Billy, it’s simply not possible any longer to believe, for instance, the biblical account of creation. The world was not created over a period of days a few thousand years ago; it has evolved over millions of years. It’s not a matter of speculation; it’s a demonstrable fact.”

When Graham declared that he took the Bible as God’s truth and preached it as such, Templeton responded,  

“You cannot do that. You don’t dare stop thinking about the most important question in life. Do it and you begin to die. It’s intellectual suicide.”

When Lee Strobel visited Templeton in his 80’s, he asked Templeton about Jesus.  The answer, 

“He is the most important thing in my life. I . . . I . . . I . . . , I know it may sound strange, but I have to say . . . I adore him! In my view, he is the most important human being who has ever existed…And if I may put it this way, I . . . miss . . . him!” 

He died missing Jesus.

You believe in the sanctity of marriage and people laugh at you.  You stand for the sanctity of life to protest against abortion, and the world ridicule you.  You are made to be out of touch when you speak up against euthanasia.  Your mind is the battlefield of the world trying to drag you away from Christ and his Word.  “You cannot believe in the outdated book!”  How do you react when false prophets accuse you and plant unbelief in your mind?

Unbelief in the face of God’s expressed promise

Sometime after the encounter with Jeremiah’s yoke, Nebuchadnezzar and his army were back in Judah.  The battle for the city was fierce.  God had not turned away from Hezekiah.  Jeremiah went with this message:  God will give the city to the Babylonians, but Hezekiah will not die by the sword.  

You will die peacefully… I myself make this promise, declares the Lord. (Jeremiah 34:5, NIV)

Hezekiah wavered. He tried to improve the morals of the city by demanding slaves to go free according to the Law of God.  It worked for a while, but the people protested and took their slaves back—and Hezekiah did nothing to stop them.  

Hezekiah rejected the promise of God and hardened his heart.  

Unbelief seeks the destruction of those who care most

The court officials arrested Jeremiah, the beat him up and locked him up in a dungeon for a long time.  Hezekiah eventually heard about it and order that he be brought before him.  For what reason?  Is there any word form the Lord?  The answer:  Yes, you will be handed over to the king of Babylon.” (Jeremiah 37:15-17) 

Hezekiah granted Jeremiah’s request to not be put back into the dungeon, but an only little while later, the officials approached the king to take Jeremiah’s life.  And the reply?  I can do nothing to oppose you.” (38:5)  Almost like, “Do as you like; he’s just a pain in the neck.  They dumped him in a muddy cistern to die like a dog.  It took thirty men to later pull him up from the mud and save his life.  

How many times will a sinner run from those who actually seek his goodwill?  Is it possible that a sinner will harden his heart to the point that he longs to see the destruction of those who love him and want to see him saved?  Yes, just look at our Lord Jesus Christ.  He loved them but they killed Him.

Perhaps this last time!

Then, in a moment of desperation, with the flaming arrows of the Babylonians almost raining into the city,  the king sent again for Jeremiah.  It was a secret meeting, with the king trying to escape the eyes of the officials.  It happened in the temple.

 “I am going to ask you something,” the king said to Jeremiah. “Do not hide anything from me.” (Jeremiah 38:14, NIV)

The king was in a narrow place, scared, filled with fear.  The answer from the prophet was the same, but the prophet practically pleaded with the king: 

“Obey the Lord by doing what I tell you. Then it will go well with you, and your life will be spared. All your wives and children will be brought out to the Babylonians. You yourself will not escape from their hands but will be captured by the king of Babylon, and this city will be burned down.” (Jeremiah 38:20, 23, NIV)

Did Hezekiah listen?  Did he take the one and last chance offered to him?  Did he obey the Lord and surrender?  Genuine repentance is what Zedekiah needed. God offered him a good way out of a bad situation. If only he would surrender, his life would be spared and his city would be saved!

Philip Ryken comments:

Zedekiah’s sin was living by his fears rather than by faith. His sin was not trusting God when he was afraid. His sin was keeping his fears to himself rather than taking them to the Lord. Once he admitted, “I am afraid,” he found himself unable to do anything else. He was paralyzed with fear.

He looked the prisoner-prophet, who was imprisoned for treason, in the eye and asked for a way to escape, but he was more of a prisoner himself.  John Guest writes: 

“This was Zedekiah’s last chance to save the city, its walls, its warriors, its women and children. All he had to do was trust the prophet, to lift his head high, take up the flag of truce, walk past the princes and out to the Chaldean armies. This simple act of contrition would have saved the city.” 

It called for obedient faith.  Sadly, Zedekiah squandered his final opportunity for salvation. Zedekiah dithered until Jerusalem burned.  He was more worried about what people would think than about doing what was right.

The blind king blinded

The siege of Jerusalem took a year and six months. Then the end came.  The city walls were pulled down. The king tried to escape, but they pursued and arrested him.  By force he had to stand before the oppressor he refused to surrender to.  Till the last moment he thought he could escape God’s prophecy, but it in chains they took him to Nebuchadnezzar, who slaughter his sons in his presence before they cut his eyes out.  Not only was he now spiritually blind; according to the promise of God he did not die then, but he could not—physically—see God’s promise go into fulfilment.

Conclusion

My dear friends in the Lord,

Disbelief can sometimes parade as a form of faith, and is far more dangerous than outright rebellion against God—but ultimately there is no difference:  it leads to destruction.  The wages of sin is death.

God’s Word stands before you today:  Obey the Lord, then it will go well with you.  He is the God of heaven and earth.  You must trust Him with your life. 

I close with the words of Romans 8:  

What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave Him up for us all—how will He not also, along with Him, graciously give us all things? (Romans 8:31–32, NIV)

Disbelief, or trust.  May God help is un our unbelief.  Amen.

Sermon preached by Rev D. Rudi Schwartz on Sunday 1 December 2019

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