The Best Gospel Passage You've Never Studied
I’m going to go out on a limb here - the greatest gospel passage you’ve never studied might be in the book of Zechariah.
The Old and New Testaments both end with an apocalypse. Obviously, Zechariah isn’t the last book in the Old Testament but it is the final word on several important themes and it creates a prophetic link with the end of the Bible. It’s possible that Jesus references Zechariah in Matthew 23, one of his fiercest rebukes of the Pharisees, “On you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar.”*
In the style of Ezekiel and Daniel, Zechariah had profound visions of the Lord and preached repentance to the people of Israel. Although he is relatively unknown to us, Zechariah’s night visions are the backdrop for big sections of the book of Revelation, and he was easily Jude’s favorite Old Testament writer. You probably know more of Zechariah’s night visions that you think. He’s the one who presents Satan as an accuser, predicts Jesus’ triumphal entry on a donkey, mentions 30 pieces of silver, talks about the Messiah as a shepherd, and predicts that all the money traders will be kicked out of the temple.
We don’t know very much about the man; all we know is that Zechariah was a priest, from the tribe of Levi, who came back to Jerusalem from the exile with his parents and grandparents. Shortly after Haggai called upon the people to rebuild the house of the Lord, Zechariah called upon the people to rebuild their own hearts. He came to them with “gracious and comforting words” from the Lord (1:13).
In his eight night visions, Zechariah is prophetic and apocalyptic. Prophecy is speaking the word of the Lord to his people. He authoritatively says the word of the Lord came to him. He opens his mouth and begins, “Thus says the Lord of hosts…” But you can immediately tell that this book is different from the other minor prophets; it’s also apocalyptic.
Apocalypse doesn’t mean the end of the world. It doesn’t refer to a catastrophic disaster. The word apocalypse literally means to reveal. Apocalypses aren’t always about the future, they’re often about the present. Like John in the book of Revelation, Zechariah is talking about things that are currently going on as well as things in the future. An apocalypse reveals something that is there that you are not capable of seeing. Zechariah unmasks the true spiritual state of the people of Israel and shows them what God has done for them. Think about the story in 2 Kings 6 where Elisha prays that the servant would see the angel armies camped around them, and all of a sudden, his eyes are open and he sees horses and chariots of fire all across the mountains. Reading an apocalypse is like praying, “O Lord, please open my eyes that I might see.” You get this sense as you read these words that something is going on beneath the surface, something even truer than what you thought you could see.
In the fourth vision, Zechariah sees something incredible (3:1-10). He opens his eyes and Joshua, the High Priest (Haggai 1:1), is standing in the heavenly courtroom before the Divine Counsel. As the scene opens, Satan strides across the room and begins bringing charges against him. This is Satan’s role - he’s the accuser. He does the same thing in Job 1:6-11 and in Revelation 12:10. He lays out the case like a prosecutor. It’s the Day of Atonement, the one day of the year when the High Priest takes on all the sins of the people and goes before God to make a sacrifice on behalf of the nation. But this year, Joshua is completely unprepared. There’s no temple where they can make the sacrifice. The holy of holies has been torn down and the presence of the Lord has departed. The people have disobeyed too many times. They were kicked out of the promised land. And on top of it all, he’s standing before God in filthy disgusting clothes, not the garments God commanded the priests to wear, Satan adds as he rounds out his case.
But Satan does not know the mind of the Lord. All of a sudden the Lord shouts, “The Lord rebuke you, Satan! The Lord who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you!” Jude tells us the Devil has heard this line before. He never gets used to God taking a stand for his people. Like a “brand plucked from the fire,” God intervenes to deliver the people of Israel. One of the commentators says, “Singed and soot-covered, they stood before the Lord in the person of Joshua, facing his accuser.” And in that moment, God did not overlook his justice. He did not simply give them a pass, but decided to make them righteous.
The angels move forward and take off the filthy rags. God says, “Behold, I have taken your iniquity away from you, and I will clothe you with pure vestments.” They put a clean turban on his head, likely the one Bezalel and Oholiab made almost a thousand years before that says, “Holy to the Lord” across the forehead. The transformation is stunning. On this passage, T. V. Moore wrote, “The greatness of our sin only magnifies the mercy that pardons it.” Problem solved. Mission accomplished. Almost.
Forgiveness and forgetfulness are not the same thing. Something has to be done with the sin of Israel. On the day of atonement, two things happen. First, the priest took a goat and laid his hands on it, passing the sins of the people onto the scapegoat. Then they ran the goat out of town into the wilderness, never to return (Lev. 16:20-22). It became tradition that the goat was given over the demon Azazel, a servant of Satan who dwelled in the desert.
Later in Zechariah, we encounter the scapegoat. The seventh vision may be the strangest of all (5:5-11). The angel brings a basket to Zechariah and asks him to look inside. After lifting the heavy lid covering the ephah, he’s startled to see a woman sitting in the basket. “This is Wickedness,” the angel says, “and he thrust her back into the basket, and thrust down the leaden weight on its opening.” Then two angels come and lift the basket up between heaven and earth. They venture into the void between God and his people, and they take the woman to an interesting location, the land of Shinar.
Every Jew would’ve known shuddered at the mention of Shinar, it was the land of Babylon. Many of their family members had died there. Many of the people listening had just returned from the evil city. But Shinar would have evoked an even more ancient memory for the Israelites. Nimrod was the first mighty man on the earth. He was the greatest of the ancient kings after the flood. Some have wondered if he might be Gilgamesh from the ancient epic. Genesis 10 records that Nimrod was one of the descendants of Ham and he built a kingdom in the land of Shinar, beginning with the city of Babel. After God came down and thwarted his plans, he went on to build three more cities there and another empire of four cities in Assyria. The angels were taking Wickedness back to Shinar, back to the land of Babel.
There are a few curious details back in the Zechariah text; the lid on the basket is inordinately heavy, close to sixty pounds. It also says that there is a house being built for the basket. And when this temple is built, they will place the woman in the temple to wait for what comes next. The angels have been given instruction to take great care with this basket, and for good reason; this isn’t the last time we see this mysterious woman.
As the angels fly, construction is beginning again in the land of Shinar, Another Nimrod has arisen, and another tower of Babel is being built. Wickedness is on her way to join the rebellion.
Wickedness reappears in Revelation 17 and she’s no longer confined to the basket. The Spirit takes John into the wilderness to see the scapegoat. When they arrive, they’re astonished at what they see…
To be continued next Wednesday morning!
*The majority of commentators believe this refers to Zechariah son of Jehoiada in 2 Chronicles 24:20-21. In order to claim this, you have to believe his father was named Berechiah and maybe Jehoiada was his grandfather. The text in Chronicles doesn’t seem to suggest this, but it’s possible. It’s also possible their fathers were both named Berechiah, they were both priests, and they were both killed in the temple courts. The book of Zechariah does not record the prophet’s death. Both cases make sense with Jesus’ statement.
Cole Feix is the founder of So We Speak and a regular writer. Follow him on Twitter, @cfeix7.
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