James Tissot / Public domain
In a few days, Christians all around the world will begin celebrating Holy Week in a way that we haven’t done at any point before in our history. Large group gatherings will be impossible for most and illegal for many. Baptisms will be postponed – or perhaps attempted online. Communion will almost certainly be deferred. Celebrations will be muted and expressions of joy will seem forced.
The church of Jesus Christ is in exile.
We are on lockdown and it is not clear at this point how we ought to respond.
Thankfully, there are resources we can appeal to in Holy Scripture. There is nothing new under the sun and there is very little new in this particular experience of exile. It has come about in a novel way – a novel coronavirus way – but other than that, it shares considerable correspondence with the Babylonian Exile of the church in the Old Testament. Revisiting that chapter in our history yields the following principles and suggestions:
1. Submit to that which God has ordained
In the time of the Babylonian Exile, many Jewish people struggled to embrace the notion that this season of chastisement had come from the hand of the Lord. Surely God was on our side! Surely he would never allow us to suffer such a humiliating defeat! Surely he will rescue us shortly from this disaster and restore us to the enjoyment of our inheritance!
God sent the prophet Jeremiah to puncture these erroneous anticipations and assumptions.
“Now I have given all these lands into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, my servant, and I have given him also the beasts of the field to serve him. 7 All the nations shall serve him and his son and his grandson, until the time of his own land comes. Then many nations and great kings shall make him their slave. 8 But if any nation or kingdom will not serve this Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, and put its neck under the yoke of the king of Babylon, I will punish that nation with the sword, with famine, and with pestilence, declares the LORD, until I have consumed it by his hand. 9 So do not listen to your prophets, your diviners, your dreamers, your fortune-tellers, or your sorcerers, who are saying to you, ‘You shall not serve the king of Babylon.’ 10 For it is a lie that they are prophesying to you, with the result that you will be removed far from your land, and I will drive you out, and you will perish. 11 But any nation that will bring its neck under the yoke of the king of Babylon and serve him, I will leave on its own land, to work it and dwell there, declares the LORD.” (Jeremiah 27:6–11 ESV)
What strange advice!
Submit to this God ordained punishment!
Bow your neck to the King of Babylon!
Serve him for 70 years!
And wait for the rescue and deliverance of the Lord!
Sometimes a time-out must simply be endured. If we fuss, howl, moan and protest we may simply prolong the inevitable. God knows what he is doing. He knows what we need. And he knows how to chasten and purify his people.
2. Seek the welfare of the city
Being on time-out does not mean being lazy and self-indulgent. While the people of Israel could not do all the things they used to do, nevertheless, God commanded them to be busy.
“But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jeremiah 29:7 ESV)
We mustn’t waste our exile mourning and moaning over all that has been lost. Yes, vacations were cancelled! Yes, plans had to be changed! Yes, this year Easter will be different. It will be subdued. It will feel fake. It will break your heart.
Now get over it and get on with it.
Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord on its behalf.
Are you doing those things, friends? I hope so. Because I don’t suspect that this exile will be over until you have.
3. Worship however you can
The Babylonian Exile put a pause and a damper upon a great many things associated with Jewish worship. Psalm 137 begins with these haunting words:
“By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion.2 On the willows there we hung up our lyres.3 For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” 4 How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land? (Psalm 137:1–4 ESV)
There are certain songs you just can’t sing in a foreign land.
So, worship changed for the people of Israel, but it did go on. Historians tell us that it was the Babylonian Exile that began the shift in Israelite worship from temple focus to Torah focus. Before the exile, worship was mostly about going to the temple on the major feast days and making offerings – after the exile the prominence of synagogue worship around the Torah readings began to grow.
Because of the exile, there was less temple ritual and more Bible reading.
Many Jews today would argue that it was this change that allowed the Jewish people to survive the several destructions of their city and the general dispersion of their people.
It also served to prepare the nation for the transition that would come with the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The old forms and the old structures were merely shadows. Christ was the sum and substance, so in an odd way, the exile was a form of pre-evangelism.
God knows how to slap something unhelpful out of our grasping hands. He doesn’t do it to hurt – though at first it does – he does it to save. So let’s figure out what it is that we are supposed to be letting go of and let’s hold on to what we can.
4. Seize the hidden opportunity
As mentioned above, the Babylonian Exile forced a significant change upon the Jewish people in terms of how they worshipped. Gone were the feasts and festivals. The morning and evening sacrifices were a thing of the past. The rhythms of life and worship had been obliterated – but the Word of the Lord remained the same.
The Jewish people became “the people of the Book” during the exile.
Scholars believe that it was during the exile that the scribe rose to prominence above all other leaders in Judaism. Before the exile, the priest and the prophet were the main spiritual voices within the movement but after the exile it was the expert in the law who led the people, shaped the culture and moved the nation. Scribes like Ezra began to study and assemble the sacred writings – many believe that the books of the Old Testament as we have them were edited, arranged and codified during this time.
It was a season of exceptional scholarship and it likely never would have occurred had the people of God remained peaceful and undisturbed in Jerusalem.
In every crisis there is an opportunity. The church in Covidian Exile will learn things, lose things, and love things that she would never otherwise have done – thanks be to God!
The Lord knows what he is doing. He knows how to redirect and resurrect – and he has plans and purposes in this exile.
5. Read, repent and pray
God’s people read history through the lens of Scripture. Prophecy, in its specifics and detail, tends to only make sense after it has played itself out in space and time. As events transpire outside our doors, the church has always attempted to understand those events through the matrix of the written word of God.
“Does disaster come to a city, unless the LORD has done it? ‘For the Lord GOD does nothing without revealing his secret to his servants the prophets’” (Amos 3:6–7 ESV).
When something happens in the world the church does not simply sit back and blame it on politics or fate or human negligence. All those things may play a part, but ultimately, to understand a thing, is to relate it to the will and Word of the Lord. Only when that work has been done will God’s people be able to react and respond as they should.
Daniel can be seen engaged in this important work in Daniel chapter 9. He has been reading his own experiences through the words of the prophet Jeremiah. He says:
“In the first year of Darius the son of Ahasuerus, by descent a Mede, who was made king over the realm of the Chaldeans— 2 in the first year of his reign, I, Daniel, perceived in the books the number of years that, according to the word of the LORD to Jeremiah the prophet, must pass before the end of the desolations of Jerusalem, namely, seventy years.” (Daniel 9:1–2 ESV)
As Daniel pored over the writings of the prophet – making the most of the exile that God had imposed upon him – he discovered a clue as to the eventual end of this situation. In Jeremiah 25:11-12 it says:
“This whole land shall become a ruin and a waste, and these nations shall serve the king of Babylon seventy years. 12 Then after seventy years are completed, I will punish the king of Babylon and that nation, the land of the Chaldeans, for their iniquity, declares the Lord” (Jeremiah 25:11–12 ESV)
Daniel did the math, understood the implications, and began to pray. The very next verse in Daniel 9 makes that clear:
“Then I turned my face to the Lord God, seeking him by prayer and pleas for mercy with fasting and sackcloth and ashes.” (Daniel 9:3 ESV)
This present time of exile should likewise drive the people of God into the study of Holy Scripture. We must be careful in our interpretations, we must consult with others, we must read broadly – but we must read. And then when we understand our current situation, as it relates to the will and Word of God, we must pray. We must repent and pray; informed and in-line with what we have seen.
6. Be among the first wave of those who return
The Babylonian Exile was never intended to last forever. It was determined by God to last 70 years. And it was promised by God that when it was over, it would be possible for the people to return. God would raise up a king from another nation, who would defeat Babylon and release the Jews and who would then help them rebuild their city and their temple. The Bible speaks of this king by name in Isaiah 44:28:
“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)
And so it was.
In 538 BC Cyrus the Persian issued a proclamation permitting the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their city, their temple and their nation.
Surprisingly, however, most Jews chose to remain. Only a handful returned in the first few waves. Ezra 8:1 provides a snapshot of the challenges faced by those who were leading the work:
“I gathered them to the river that runs to Ahava, and there we camped three days. As I reviewed the people and the priests, I found there none of the sons of Levi.” (Ezra 8:15 ESV)
Even the Levites were hesitant to leave the safety and security of Babylon for the long road and the dangerous enterprise that lay ahead. Most of these men would have learned other skills and developed profitable businesses over the previous decades – but now they would be forced to leave all that behind and to trust in the generosity of God’s people. It was a risk. It was a gamble. It was a leap of faith and not surprisingly, only a handful were prepared to make it.
Once God’s people make peace with their exile, they are generally loath to leave it behind.
Pastors and elders may well find it difficult to regather their congregants on the other side of this Covidian Exile. Once the church figures out how to deliver services online, it will be tempting for many to remain at home and to consume those services in peace and comfort. The online preacher can be muted. The online sermon can be watched while checking one’s phone. The online service is shorter, the online Bible study can be paused and returned to at one’s own convenience. The online congregation doesn’t shake hands, ask questions or otherwise annoy.
Pastors and elders themselves must not become addicted to this technology. I’ve already observed pastors learning all the wrong lessons from this Covidian Exile. “My congregation has doubled in the last few weeks! I’ve had twice as many people watching my video as once physically attended our church!!! I was a fool to pay so much attention to the physically gathered congregation in the past!” Such exclamations only underscore the difficulties we will face when this over.
The sheep will have to be retrained – and so also will many of the shepherds.
Do not fall in love with your exile. Enduring is one thing, embracing, is quite another. When this is over be among the very first people to return. Enter his gates – physically – with thanksgiving in your hearts, and enter his courts – actually – with praise.
7. Do not mourn the church you left behind
There can be no doubt that the church will be forever affected and changed by this Covidian Exile. One wonders whether the concept of “megachurch” will make a great deal of sense on the other side. If the restrictions upon public gatherings are relaxed gradually, as I suspect they will be, will it ever make sense for us to desire a meeting of 1000 people or 2000 people – in one building at one time – breathing from one oxygen environment – at any point in the future after this crisis?
Will churches of 1000 be broken down into units of 200 or less?
Will pastors with outsized leadership gifts have to figure out how to lead networks and give away influence while holding substantially less direct authority?
Will churches at some point have to justify themselves as “essential providers”? Will that encourage churches to focus on fewer things? Things like preaching and serving the old, the sick and the poor?
Will shrunken budgets result in adjusted priorities and fewer specialists and professionals?
Will open hearts and nervous neighbours recall us to our passion and commitment to evangelism?
Only time will tell – but one thing is certain: the church will be noticeably different on the other side.
Be careful how you react to that.
When the Jews began to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple, the older Jews – the few who remembered the glory of the former temple – had a hard time being excited about the church that was emerging on the other side. Ezra 3:12 records:
“many of the priests and Levites and heads of fathers’ houses, old men who had seen the first house, wept with a loud voice when they saw the foundation of this house being laid, though many shouted aloud for joy, 13 so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted with a great shout, and the sound was heard far away.” (Ezra 3:12–13 ESV)
Things will be different on the other side. They may be better in some ways and worse in others – but they will be different. Don’t allow nostalgia to disqualify you from the race we will be running when this is over. There will be a season of reflection and a window of opportunity that may not be open for very long.
Do not miss it moaning and mourning over the past.
The grass withers.
The flower fades.
But the Word of the Lord will stand forever.
Thanks be to God!
To listen to the most recent episodes of Pastor Paul’s Into The Word devotional podcast on the TGC Canada website see here. You can also find it on iTunes. To access the entire library of available episodes see here.