The 22nd Sunday after Pentecost October 25, 2015
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
372, 783(1-5) (TLH alt: 426), 783(6-7) (TLH alt: 648), 759 (TLH alt: 283)
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
May the love of God the Father fill you with wonder and awe, may the sacrifice of God the Son fill you with gratitude and humility, and may the indwelling of God the Holy Spirit fill you with faith, comfort, and wisdom. Amen.
Dear fellow Christians:
You’ve all heard the term before: “Just so you know.” When or under what sorts of circumstances do you usually hear it? Probably when someone tosses in one more bit of information in a last ditch effort to change your mind or win an argument. It can often be a bit melodramatic, “Just so you know, you’re the only one I’ve ever really loved.” Over-the-top or not, “just so you know” never really means “just so you know.” The person who uses the phrase almost always wants to change a mind by offering one last parting bit of information.
Today’s text deals with an infinitely more serious “Just so you know…” Far from theatrical, this one involves life or death information that is offered by God Himself. Our text will help to clarify as we are instructed today by the Word of God recorded in Isaiah, the 45th chapter:
Thus says the Lord to His anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have held—to subdue nations before him and loose the armor of kings, to open before him the double doors, so that the gates will not be shut: ‘I will go before you and make the crooked placesstraight; I will break in pieces the gates of bronze and cut the bars of iron.I will give you the treasures of darkness and hidden riches of secret places, that you may know that I, the Lord, who call you by your name, am the God of Israel.For Jacob My servant’s sake, and Israel My elect, I have even called you by your name; I have named you, though you have not known Me.I am the Lord, and there is no other; there is no God besides Me. I will gird you, though you have not known Me, that they may know from the rising of the sun to its setting that there is none besides Me. I am the Lord, and there is no other; I form the light and create darkness, I make peace and create calamity; I, the Lord, do all these things.’
These are the very words of our God, written and preserved down through the centuries for our instruction and growth. That each one of us, personally, might gain such gifts and many others, we pray: Sanctify us by Your truth, O Lord. Your Word is truth. Amen.
How carefully were you paying attention to the text when you read it? Without looking back at it, can you outline exactly what it was about? A bit disturbing, isn’t it, when we hear or read a sermon and find ourselves paying the least attention to that part which is the most important, namely, God’s Word?
My guess is you missed something critical in this text the first time through. Take just a moment and reread it. See if anything jumps out at you the second or third time through. Nothing, right? All pretty straightforward? That’s why we don’t just read God’s Word, we study it, explore it, dissect it, and apply it.
So what is the basic message of the text? It was about a king named Cyrus, right? Cyrus was the ruler under whose leadership the Persian Empire was established. In size it rivaled the Roman Empire, extending from India to Greece, and from North Africa to the Caucasus Mountains near the border of present-day Russia. It swallowed up the Median Empire, followed by the mighty Assyrian Empire, together with its capital Babylon—the city many historians believe to have been the most formidable and luxurious city in ancient times— and countless other smaller kingdoms.
This was the Cyrus named in our text, but that isn’t the most interesting part. The most interesting part is that when Isaiah wrote these words, there was no Persian Empire. In fact Cyrus wasn’t even born yet. There wasn’t even a Babylonian Empire which came before the Persian Empire. There was only the rising Assyrian Empire, and the man named Cyrus would not even be born for another 100 years. Put into American perspective, this would be like George Washington writing about Abraham Lincoln, or a young Abraham Lincoln writing about the rise of Adolph Hitler.
There is even more. About 100 years before he was even born, God through Isaiah prophesied that Cyrus would subdue a mighty city that hadn’t yet been built—Babylon, and free a people who had not yet even been defeated, let alone led into exile, namely, Judah. In the verse preceding our text, Isaiah 44:28 (the verse preceding our text) God talked of rebuilding both a city that was still very much intact and formidable—Jerusalem—and a temple that was still standing in all of the splendor with which Solomon built it. We read: “[God] says of Cyrus, ‘He is My shepherd, and he shall fulfill all my purpose, saying of Jerusalem, “She shall be built,” and of the temple, “Your foundation shall be laid”’” (Isaiah 44:28 ESV).
History gives us some even more remarkable insights here. The Greek historian Herodotus recorded that Cyrus’ grandfather, Astyages—king of the Median Empire—ordered Cyrus killed at birth because he feared that the child would one day overthrow him, and eventually Cyrus did do so. The baby Cyrus was said to have been left to die in the countryside, but was rescued by a peasant family and raised as a shepherd. Note the words in Isaiah 44: “[Cyrus] is my shepherd, and he shall fulfill all my purpose.”
Some will no doubt recall from Bible History how Cyrus eventually captured mighty Babylon intact by diverting the Euphrates River that ran under the city’s impenetrable walls. Even then the invading Medes and Persians could have been easily destroyed had not the arrogant Babylonians been feasting that night.
We read a description of this feast in Daniel 5:1-4: “Belshazzar the king made a great feast for a thousand of his lords, and drank wine in the presence of the thousand. While he tasted the wine, Belshazzar gave the command to bring the gold and silver vessels which his father Nebuchadnezzar had taken from the temple which had been in Jerusalem, that the king and his lords, his wives, and his concubines might drink from them.Then they brought the gold vessels that had been taken from the temple of the house of God which had been in Jerusalem; and the king and his lords, his wives, and his concubines drank from them. They drank wine, and praised the gods of gold and silver, bronze and iron, wood and stone.”
The mighty bronze gates in the interior walls that lined the Euphrates River to defend against just such an attack were left open. These were undoubtedly the very gates mentioned in our text: “…to open before him the double doors, so that the gates will not be shut: ‘I will go before you and make the crooked placesstraight; I will break in pieces the gates of bronze and cut the bars of iron.” [v.1b-2]
Once again we see the eternal, omniscient qualities of our God. Remember how Daniel, a Jewish captive in Babylon at that time, had predicted the fall to Belshazzar by interpreting the writing on the wall. Daniel 5:25-28: “And this is the inscription that was written: ‘MENE,MENE, TEKEL,UPHARSIN.This is the interpretation of each word. MENE: God has numbered your kingdom, and finished it; TEKEL: You have been weighed in the balances, and found wanting; PERES: Your kingdom has been divided, and given to the Medes and Persians.”
The Medes and the Persians took Babylon without a struggle 2,554 years ago, October 12, 539 BC. Our text accurately predicted these very events more than 100 years before they ever took place. This is God’s “just so you know” to His people Israel. Far from melodramatic or frivolous, it was God’s divine attempt to rescue His chosen people from the moral cesspool and the idolatry into which they had waded. He did so by warning them in advance of calamity that they could avoid by simple obedience.
Remarkable? Certainly. There is even more here, it is a divine warning for you and me all these centuries later. While the Lord God raised up Cyrus to accomplish His divine purposes, there is no evidence that Cyrus adopted the God of Israel as his only God, let alone that he believed in the promise of a Messiah. History tells us that he worshipped idols named Bel, Nebo, and Marduk. All of that fame, all of that success, wealth, and power—his very birth and rise prophesied on the pages of the Holy Bible—and yet Cyrus will spend an eternity in Hell if he did not come to faith in the one true God and in His promise of the Messiah. The kindness that he once showed to the Jews by allowing them to return and rebuild their city and their temple will not save him. The fact that his name is mentioned in the Bible will not save him, nor will the earthly favors that God poured out on him while he lived. Man is saved by faith alone in Jesus Christ—the promise of the Savior in the Old Testament, the reality of the Savior in the New Testament.
The simple, irrefutable fact is that God ordained and established Cyrus for His own purposes, as Isaiah explained in our text: “For Jacob My servant’s sake, and Israel My elect, I have even called you by your name; I have named you, though you have not known Me. I am the Lord, and there is no other.” [vv.4-6] It was the God that you and I today worship that did all this, and it was that same God who caused it to be recorded, “just so you know.”
Cyrus, despite being raised up by the one true God, came to imagine that his success and prosperity came from other sources—the result of his own efforts and the favor of his idol-gods. He, therefore, failed to recognize and acknowledge that there is no God but the Triune God. In practical terms that means that each one of you here today is infinitely more blessed than the great King Cyrus. Each one of you possesses immeasurably more wealth, for your riches are eternal. Each one of you knows the one true God, and believes that that God sent His only Son, Jesus Christ, to be your Savior. Through this faith, given to you as a gift from God the Holy Spirit, forgiveness is yours and you have been declared heirs of the glory and riches of Heaven itself.
All of history points to Jesus Christ and for good reason because in the end, nothing else matters. Come what may in this life and no matter how much you gain or to what heights of popularity and power you rise, this life will one day give way to an existence that does not end, either in Heaven or in Hell. Satan’s sole purpose in this world is to remove you from the path to eternal life where you currently walk. To accomplish his goals, know that he will offer you whatever he finds to be most effective in bringing about your spiritual death. Remember how he offered Jesus all of the wealth and glories of all of the kingdoms of the world if Jesus would but bow down and worship him? What will he offer you? What has he already offered you?
Understand the implications. This struggle will never end on this earth. It will continue until your God ends your time of grace. There is one path to life eternal, and there are a billion side-roads. The Devil’s work is to turn you onto one of those detours. To accomplish this he will tempt you with friends who do not share your Christian faith. He will tempt you with temporal glory and fame—from the schools of your youth to the boardrooms and associations of your adult life. He will tempt you with money, with lust, with pleasure, even with pain—with whatever proves most effective in your specific case.
Yet what a tremendous comfort to know that you do not struggle alone. Your God didn’t just create you and walk away, He continues to work for you and in you. The Creator of heaven and earth is on your side. He loves you and lives within you. He, therefore, knows you intimately and cares for you immeasurably. He knows when your heart is breaking as you struggle to do the right thing, and He will not only hold your hand and preserve you in saving faith, He will also continue to supply you with the wisdom and the strength to do that right thing.
So what happened to Cyrus? Spiritually speaking, we have no idea. He died and now faces God’s judgment at the resurrection. Whether he will rise to life or death, God alone knows. But you and I are still living. Our time of grace has not yet ended. This text is also God’s “just so you know” to us: “Just so you know, I can raise up mighty nations and I can bring them to destruction. I have showered blessings on the godless and continue to do so for My own purposes. It is not for moral man to try to comprehend my ways or to seek to understand the outward success of those who are inwardly dead. Know only that I have also placed your feet on the path of life eternal through faith in my Son Jesus Christ, and there it is my will that you remain.”
The God who has forgiven your sins in Jesus Christ will continue to escort you into the very doors of His Paradise. You are now saved, not by what you do, but alone through faith in Jesus Christ. This is the great central truth of all of Scripture. The very God who has revealed that truth to you and who has mercifully carried you to this point in your life will certainly not abandon you now. It is, in fact, the Lord, who does all these things.
Just so you know. Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Scripture quotations marked (ESV) are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.