Does it sometimes feel like Heaven has gone silent and God isn’t listening anymore, your prayers are ignored and your name is forgotten? We all go through this at some point. The Psalms are filled with Laments asking why God is far off, not hearing or responding. We get discouraged, even depressed, and live that dark night of the soul. Sometimes, none of the Bible’s promises feel real.
In 400 BC, Malachi prophesied, calling Israel to repent, and then God went silent – no prophetic word for nearly 400 years. Empires rose and fell, and most oppressed or enslaved Israel. Rebellions arose among the Jews, led by self-appointed Messiahs, but were cruelly crushed. Through all this, God said nothing.
It seemed that God had forgotten Israel, abandoned them, his blessings had ceased. Their sin, their idolatry must have led God to turn his back and no longer speak to them or work in and through them. Anyone who thought that would have been wrong.
The silence was broken when a priest named Zechariah took his turn offering incense in the Temple. The Angel of the Lord appeared to him and Heaven was speaking again. A sequence of events was set in motion a sequence of events that brought the Son of God into the world, led him to the Cross and the Empty Tomb, and changed the destiny of all humanity.
Despite appearances, God had never stopped working. He was working behind the scenes. He had worked powerfully through Abraham and the Patriarchs, Moses and Joshua, the Judges, the Kings, and the prophets. Now God worked quietly for 400 years to prepare the world for its greatest moment, the turning point of world history in an insignificant town called Bethlehem. Every work of God was pointed toward this moment when Heaven burst open. God was preparing the world and his people for his greatest work, the Incarnation of his Son.
In the darkness, we often think God has forgotten us. Life is hopeless and the darkness has won. Discouragement and depression grasp our souls. I know better, but feelings overwhelm me all too often. Have you experienced a time like that, a silent time from God? Perhaps it is happening now? There is hope in these times, in the Christmas story.
Many years ago I sat in a church history class at Dallas Seminary taught by Dr. John Hannah. IHe spoke eloquently about Galatians 4:4-5, and how history demonstrates that text. What I share today comes from his class.
Galatians 4:4-5 But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.
That’s Christmas. God sent his Son to be born as a man, to redeem sinners, in the “fullness of time.” When everything was ready, at the perfect time. God wasn’t inactive during those 400 years, he was directing world affairs, mixing the ingredients of his recipe, masterfully preparing the world so that it would be ready when the Savior came. He had not forgotten Israel, he was preparing his greatest work.
He had a plan, devised in eternity past, to redeem our sinful world. The plan has been in effect, inexorably driving world events. In Genesis 3:15, God predicted Christ’s ultimate victory on the Cross. Every day since God has been at work to bring this plan into effect.
The time was fulfilled.
Galatians 4 is not the only place such a principle is seen. In Mark 1, Jesus came out of the wilderness to begin his public ministry, saying,
“Mark 1:14-15 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”
Now is the time. The kingdom of God is at hand. In John 7:8, Jesus refused to go up to a feast in Jerusalem, because his time has not yet fully come.
John 7:8 You go up to the feast. I am not going up to this feast, for my time has not yet fully come.”
Later, when the time for the crucifixion was ready, Luke 9:51 tells us that Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem. It was time to go.
Luke 9:51 When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.
Jesus lived on a divine time clock. He lived on the Father’s agenda. When the time was right, he set out to Jerusalem for the ultimate act that would change the world forever.
God is always at work. When you see him working powerfully, answering prayers, bringing everything together, providing what you need – God is at work. When nothing is working out, when your prayers bounce off the ceiling and there’s no answer, when you cannot see any evidence of God – he is still at work. You may not see it, you may not understand it, but God is still at work. In life’s dark times, in the silent times, he is still at work.
Preparing the World
Let us examine the silent work that God was doing to prepare the world for the birth of Christ. What was God doing between Malachi and Matthew to get things ready for that glorious night in Bethlehem? Here are the facts.
Israel was the Soil in which God worked
The greatest enemy of the gospel in Jesus’ day and in the days of the early church was the religious leaders of Israel. Anti-Semitism in evil, but so is empty religion. In spite of this, Israel was the fertilizer that help the church grow and spread – ironically, both Christianity’s roots and its enemy! God used Israel to prepare for the coming of Christ.
The Old Testament is the theological and historical framework for the New Testament. The choosing of Israel, the Exodus, the sacrifices, the call of David, the message of the prophets – it all points forward to the coming of the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth.
Israel also introduced important concepts which set the framework for our faith. They insisted that there is one God in a world that worshiped many gods. They taught that sin must be atoned for by a blood sacrifice, foreshadowing the sacrifice Christ would make to pay for the sins of the world at Calvary. During the silent years, Israel developed a great Messianic expectancy. At least 40 men came forward claiming to be the deliverer of Israel, all calling Israel to revolt from Greece or Rome. The Maccabees are the best known, but all these revolts were brutally crushed. They expected a Messiah, but a king, a conqueror, a political deliverer. They wanted a lion. They rejected Jesus because he came as a lamb – not what they expected.
The Jewish diaspora was crucial. Jews were scattered throughout the Empire, in every major city. Paul would enter a city, find a synagogue, open the scrolls and proclaim Christ. They’d kick him out and he’d take those few who believed and go to the Gentiles to preach and establish a church. This was the church planting strategy of the early church.
God used the Greeks to till the soil
The Greek Empire was not at all godly or good, but God used them to till the soil so that the seed of the gospel could grow. What is the first requirement for the spread of the gospel, the biggest hindrance to mission work? Language. Paul never had to learn a new language to proclaim Christ, because the Greek language was universal in the Roman Empire.
Greeks were also philosophers – Plato, Aristotle, and many others. They taught that there was meaning, order, purpose in life – higher and nobler principles for life. They could not provide what they promised, but they raised people’s eyes. Jesus fulfilled that hope.
The Greeks tilled the soil for the spread of the gospel.
The Romans were the fertilizer that helped the work grow
The Roman Empire was the fertilizer that helped the gospel spread rapidly, one of history’s great ironies. The Roman Empire was cruel, and amoral, but God used them anyway. God used Nebuchadnezzar, he used Cyrus – he often uses wicked people for his purposes.
Three elements of Roman culture bear examination. First, the Pax Romana – the Roman Peace. Rome valued peace and enforced it with an iron fist. When Paul and other Christians traveled throughout the Empire to preach Christ, they had little fear on the roads. The Roman government kept the peace. Speaking of travel, the Roman Roads were more than a gospel presentation. Some of these roads still exist today and Paul’s entourage was able to travel them from city to city. There was no hacking through jungles because there were well-maintained roads to walk. Finally, the Roman Army became an unlikely ally in the spread of the gospel. The soldiers sometimes persecuted Christians, but God used them as well. In Philippians 1, Paul discusses his imprisonment. “It has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ.” Dr. Hannah reminded us that Paul was chained to a Roman soldier 24 hours a day. Guess what? That meant that a Roman soldier was chained to Paul all day as well. Those soldiers heard the gospel and many took that gospel with them.
What irony. Greek philosophers were hostile to Christianity, either rejecting it or altering its message. Rome persecuted the church because it refused to give full allegiance to the Empire. Jewish legalists were vicious enemies of Christ and Christians. God used these to prepare for the coming of Christ. Their evil is not absolved, but our awesome God can use even his enemies for his glory He is not scared of evil, and you should not be either.
God’s enemies are not an obstacle to his work. They are a highway for it!
So, during those 400 silent years, God was not idle. He was working among wicked nations and rebellious Israel to accomplish his purposes and prepare for his greatest work. Sometimes, in the silence, when we think God is absent, he is preparing great works. When it seems that God is silent, often he is about to speak loudly.
The principle is clear. Let us see if we can drive it home!
God has a plan
It would have been easy during some of the years that Israel was under oppression, or in Babylonian captivity, or during the silent years after Malachi, to believe that God had abandoned Israel or forgotten them. He had not. God is always working his plan, in good times and bad. Sometimes, his plan is to test you, to exercise your spiritual muscles, to conform you to Christ to prepare you for what lies ahead. .
He is working the plan
God is working his plan, even when you cannot see it. Throughout the Old Testament, God prepared his servants in dark, quiet times for his great works – Job in suffering, Joseph in slavery, Moses in Midian, Gideon in oppression. They continued to walk with God and grew in him until he revealed his plan to them. False teachers tell us life is about good times and good things. We serve God whatever comes. We serve God to prepare for heavenly treasures, the days of eternity, but sometimes, God breaks through in power and blessing here on earth. Our duty is to believe God and serve him by faith, regardless of what we see with our eyes. He is working his plan in this world and we are servants of that plan.
It is a good plan
God’s plan is a good plan. We don’t see it and don’t understand it. We complain and gripe about what is going on in this world, but Romans 8:28 makes it clear.
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.
God is working a plan in your life and it is very good. When you think he is silent, at rest, or has abandoned or forgotten you, you can be sure (if you are His) that such is NOT true.
In the dark times, trust the plan
Trust God and his plan. When your circumstances are bad and your life is a mess, trust God’s plan. God is at work in this world to bring people to him and himself to people. His timing is different than yours and you will never understand why he allows what he allows and why he waits when he waits, but you have to trust HIM. He is good and he is God!
Faith is holding God’s hand in the darkness, when sight has failed. You hold on to the promises of God, you count on him when everything in your soul screams that you should give up. In life’s dark moments, you look to the light of the world, and keep holding on!