In concluding this series, I want to outline two sermons from Old Testament passages that, at first sight, are ‘obscure’ as regards their Christological content. May they encourage us all to find ‘Christ in all the Scriptures’.
The reproach of Egypt
Our first sermon is based on Joshua 5 and could be entitled, ‘The reproach of Egypt removed’ (5:9).
Under Joshua’s leadership the Israelites had crossed the Jordan – its angry flood-waters held at bay by the Ark of the Covenant, which pictures Christ. They had escaped the wilderness of unbelief and had been translated into Canaan – the promised land which they must now possess and which pictures salvation rather than heaven (Hebrews 4:6-10; Colossians 1:12-14).
But their progress is abruptly halted. Before they can proceed, all the males must be circumcised (5:2-3). Why was this important? Consider the answer under three headings – the sign of the covenant; the sins of the flesh; and the sufficiency of Christ.
The sign of the covenant
God gave circumcision as the sign and seal of his covenant with Abraham (Genesis 17:7-14; Romans 4:11). The covenant in question was not that of Sinai but the covenant of promise – which has its ultimate fulfilment in Christ (Galatians 3:15-18). But it also had a historical fulfilment in the occupation of the land of Canaan (Genesis 17:8).
To whom would God give the promised land? Only to the heirs of the promise – who bore the sign of the covenant.
But the nation that entered Canaan with Joshua lacked that sign. The ritual of circumcision had been suspended during their 40 years in the wilderness, underlining God’s displeasure at their unbelief (5:5-6; compare Genesis 17:14).
Before they could possess the land, therefore, they must be ‘re-admitted’ to the covenant of promise by the restoration of its sign. What can we learn from this?
The covenant of promise is fulfilled in the new covenant in Christ; the land pictures salvation; and physical circumcision prefigures the circumcision of the heart – ‘In Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but a new creation’ (Galatians 6:15).
We see, therefore, that only the true heirs of Abraham – who share his faith, and (being born again) are new creations in Christ – are qualified to possess the land of salvation (Galatians 3:9, 29).
The reproach of Egypt (5:9) was slavery, but it was not removed when Israel escaped from Pharaoh. Why not? Because they remained in bondage to unbelief. Only now, as they came afresh under the covenant of promise, was that reproach finally removed.
So must we find refuge under the ‘new covenant in [Jesus’] blood’ (1 Corinthians 11:25) if we are to inherit the kingdom of heaven.
The sins of the flesh
Concerning the circumcision of the heart, Paul writes: ‘In him you were circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ’ (Colossians 2:11). Under the new covenant, physical circumcision is meaningless, but it remains a picture of the new creation that has been wrought in Christ.
Moses foresaw this clearly: ‘The Lord God will bring you [back] to the land which your fathers possessed, and you shall possess it … and the Lord your God will circumcise your hearts … to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live’ (Deuteronomy 30:5-6).
Only those who have received this spiritual circumcision are qualified to possess the land and its riches – the unsearchable riches of Christ. They have ‘put off the old man with his deeds and have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of him who created him’ (Colossians 3:9-10).
They have laid aside the ‘[evil] desires of the flesh and of the mind’ and have become God’s workmanship, ‘created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them’ (Ephesians 2:3, 10).
The sufficiency of Christ
Paul’s words about spiritual circumcision are part of an extended argument. The preceding verses state: ‘In [Christ] dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily, and you are complete in him, who is the head of all principality and power’ (Colossians 2:9-10).
The Colossians were being drawn away from a Christ-centred faith towards Judaistic and Gnostic corruptions of the gospel. Their false teachers were urging them to observe Jewish customs and seek esoteric wisdom.
Paul’s message in this context is that believers are ‘complete’ in Christ, who is head over all things and the substance of all true religion (2:17-19). Having been ‘circumcised’ by Christ – cleansed from sin and raised from spiritual death (2:13-14) – they needed no other provision.
Those who are circumcised in heart are complete in Christ. He is all they need for time and for eternity.
To beautify the Lord’s house
Our second outline sermon is based on Ezra 7:11-28 – King Artaxerxes’ commission to Ezra to return from Babylon to Jerusalem to revive temple worship and refurbish the temple itself. While the Joshua example is clearly tied to an explicit symbol, this second example reflects an implicit pattern.
A single verse opens up the whole passage. In verse 27 we read Ezra’s response to the gracious provisions the king had made: ‘Blessed be the Lord God of our fathers, who has put such a thing as this in the king’s heart, to beautify the house of the Lord which is at Jerusalem’.
The passage is all about beautifying God’s house – which typifies the church of Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:19-22; Hebrews 3:6; 1 Peter 2:5-10).
The king’s problem
Although completely rebuilt only 70 years earlier, the temple had fallen on hard times. Concerned that all was not well – and fearing divine wrath if God’s name was dishonoured through negligence (7:23) – Artaxerxes sent Ezra to Jerusalem to teach the law and set in order the worship of ‘the God of heaven’ (7:14).
Ezra’s later chapters focus on the failings he found, particularly compromise with the world through intermarriage with idol worshippers (Ezra 9:1-15).
How clear a picture this is of the professing church today! Even within Evangelical churches we see much that dishonours God through compromise and accommodation with the world. Our passage therefore addresses a current and topical need.
The king’s purpose
Artaxerxes’ purpose was not just to prop up an ailing religion – it was to beautify the temple. He sought not just its survival but its transformation.
Similarly, God’s purpose (and our desire) is to see the church of Christ in our own day changed out of all recognition. But what can be done to ‘beautify’ the church of Christ? Answers are given here in the letter of Artaxerxes, ‘king of kings’ (7:12).
So we shall find answers in the book of God which brings us to the ultimate King of kings and Lord of lords, even Jesus Christ (Revelation 19:16). It is Christ’s purpose to present to himself a glorious church, without wrinkle and without spot (Ephesians 5:27).
The king’s perception
Artaxerxes sends to Jerusalem neither a diplomat nor a figurehead but a humble priest. Herein we see the king’s perception, for Ezra was ‘expert in the words of the commandments of the Lord and of his statutes to Israel’ – he was ‘a scribe of the law of the God of heaven’ (7:11-12).
If the church is to be beautified she must be taught the Word of God – the living law and message of a sovereign God. Neglect the ministry of that Word and the church will decline.
To minister the Word aright, however, we must minister Christ, for the Scriptures testify of him (John 5:39). A biblical, Christ-centred ministry will enliven and beautify the church.
The king’s power
Ezra was sent not only by the king but also by his ‘seven counsellors’ (7:14). We see here an analogy with (if not a reference to) the Holy Spirit (Zechariah 3:9; 4:10).
The Word alone will not revive God’s people and beautify the church, but the Word and the Spirit together will do so. Paul preached ‘Christ and him crucified’ and his preaching was ‘in demonstration of the Spirit and of power’ (1 Corinthians 2:2-5). It is the Spirit’s work to reveal and glorify Christ (John 16:13-15).
The Spirit also helps our infirmities as we seek to intercede with God, and searches the deep things of God that we might have the mind of Christ (Romans 8:26-27; 1 Corinthians 2:10-16).
The king’s provision
Finally, out of ‘the king’s treasury’ Artaxerxes provided richly for Ezra’s every need (7:20). The silver and gold of Babylon was put at his disposal, along with the free-will offerings of God’s people (7:15-16). These riches were not to be squandered but used in the worship and service of God (7:17-18).
So also God supplies the needs of his work and of his people out of ‘his riches in glory by Christ Jesus’ (Philippians 4:19). Let us avail ourselves of that supply!
Space forbids further exploration of this wonderfully pregnant passage – but be aware that there is much more here to reveal how God will beautify his church on earth, that she might be fit to glorify him in heaven.