by Mike Ford (1955-2021)
My maternal grandfather, Grampa Wool, was a fine man. My mother was the youngest of seven, so, by the time her five kids came along, Grampa Wool was into his sixties. Nonetheless, he played baseball with us (he had been a semi-pro player in his younger days), took us walking, told us stories and jokes, and generally made life just a little better for us when he was around. He had many grandchildren, and each of us has fond memories of him.
When, in 1967, my mom began attending what was then known as the Radio Church of God, taking her five children with her, I do not remember any change in the way Grampa Wool treated us. Even though we were now, as it appeared to family members, involved in some sort of strange religion, he continued to show us the same affection. We caught a lot of grief from the aunts, uncles, and cousins; but not from Grampa Wool. When my grandson, Evan, was born, we had to decide what I would be called. Realizing that I wanted to be the kind of grandfather Grampa Wool was, I decided I would be called "Grampa."
To the best of my knowledge, Grampa Wool did not attend a church or participate in organized religion. He was honest, hardworking, and faithful to my grandmother. He was positive and outgoing, but God did not choose to call him during his time on this earth. Yet, he will be in the second resurrection. He will be given the chance to follow God's way and to reap the benefits that way of life brings. He will be there in that Last Great Day.
Being there is what we are all about. Matthew 6:33 tells us, "Seek first the kingdom of God." It is why we are here and why we live this way of life. It would be shameful if Grampa Wool was there, and I was not. Who better to teach him than someone from his own family? He has been dead now for decades. His body has returned to dust and his spirit to God who gave it (Ecclesiastes 12:7). Yet he will be there in the Kingdom of God, in the second resurrection. Will I? Will you be there too?
Fight the Good Fight
In times past, when people left the church, especially if they were friends or family, we would say, "Maybe they weren't converted." We hoped and prayed that they were not converted because we did not want them to end up in the Lake of Fire (Revelation 20:14-15; 21:8)! Only God knows whether they were converted or not and which resurrection they will be in. To turn one's back on God's calling is a serious matter (Hebrews 6:4-8; 10:26-31), yet people have done it.
Those of us in the church today continue to "[fight] the good fight" (II Timothy 4:7). It is not easy. It is possible that, after many years of effort and striving to obey God, we could become tired or discouraged. It is even conceivable—and very tragic—that some of us could turn our back on this way of life. Yet, God does not want even one person to miss the opportunity to enter His Kingdom. Notice:
» I Timothy 2:4: [God] desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
» I Corinthians 15:22: For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive.
» Romans 11:26: And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written. . . .
Revelation 20:4-6, 11-15 shows three resurrections. The first resurrection will consist of the "firstfruits to God and to the Lamb" (Revelation 14:4), those "called, chosen, and faithful" (Revelation 17:14). The second resurrection is pictured by the Last Great Day, which is a type of the Great White Throne Judgment, and those who rise to life at that time will include all those God did not call during this age (Revelation 20:11-13). Those in the third resurrection, also called "the second death," will be primarily people whom God called yet who turned their backs on His way of life.
In the Last Great Day, billions of people will be resurrected, most with no real knowledge of God. Each will have, we think (see Isaiah 65:20), a hundred years to learn, grow, and become like God. They will not have to fight the pull of Satan because he will be out of the picture (Revelation 20:10). They will have millions of teachers to work with them, spirit-composed teachers who put on immortality and incorruption in the previous Millennium.
It hardly seems fair that they will have it so easy! No Satan, a world of plenty ruled by Christ, and good examples wherever they look! While this is true, our opportunity to be the firstfruits—to have positions of great responsibility and authority, to be there at the beginning—is far greater, despite the present hardships and trials!
Ensuring Our Calling
Grampa Wool lived a rich, full life, but he never knew why he had been born. Even with the attacks of Satan and the suffering God allows to come upon us, it is far better to know humanity's true goal and to realize that life has a purpose. It is hard to imagine enduring what true Christians have experienced through the ages and not knowing why!
As we draw closer to the return of Christ, the going will undoubtedly get even tougher. What can we do to ensure that we are there to watch our unconverted loved ones rise up in the Last Great Day? This does not imply, of course, that we can somehow "earn" salvation, but we are all aware that, once God calls us, certain responsibilities fall to us. As the apostle Peter encourages us in II Peter 1:10-11, after telling us to add certain godly character traits to our faith, "Therefore, brethren, be even more diligent to make your calling and election sure, for if you do these things you will never stumble, for so an entrance will be supplied to you abundantly into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ."
Hosea 14:1-8 describes the time of the Last Great Day, when most of mankind—pictured here in terms of Israel—is resurrected and repents, and God forgives and blesses them. It contains lessons that can aid us in being there.
In verses 1-3, Israel is exhorted to return to God:
O Israel, return to the Lord your God, for you have stumbled because of your iniquity; take words [expressions of heartfelt repentance, not physical sacrifices] with you, and return to the Lord. Say to Him, "Take away all iniquity; receive us graciously, for we will offer the sacrifices of our lips. Assyria shall not save us, we will not ride on horses [go to war], nor will we say anymore to the work of our hands, 'You are our gods.' For in You the fatherless finds mercy."
This sets up verses 4-8, in which we glimpse a time when Israel walks with God. Verse 4 shows that God forgives and blesses: "I will heal their backsliding, I will love them freely, for My anger has turned away from him." God lists specific blessings in verse 5: "I will be like the dew to Israel; he shall grow like the lily, and lengthen his roots like Lebanon." The dew is symbolic of God's Holy Spirit, necessary to produce the things that follow.
God says that Israel "shall grow like the lily." Israel, representing all of mankind, uses the Holy Spirit to grow. The lily is one of nature's most productive plants. According to Pliny the Elder, the first-century Roman scholar and author of the seminal work, Natural History, the lily bulb of his time and locale could produce as many as fifty additional bulbs. The exact species of lily to which he refers is not known, but it was probably native to the region and common enough to be known by the average person.
Having been buried in the ground all winter long, a bulb receives the spring dew and quickly shoots straight up, topped by a lovely bloom. Christ claimed the lilies of the field were every bit as glorious as Solomon's robes (Matthew 6:28-29). Now recall the early days of conversion. God's Holy Spirit began to open our minds and our growth was swift, and the result was a beautiful change of heart and the flowering of godly conduct.
Yet, the lily is not a complete metaphor for a Christian. Because its roots are shallow, a lily is easily pulled up. So God adds that we should lengthen our roots "as [the cedars of] Lebanon." Mentioned throughout the Bible, cedars of Lebanon are stately, evergreen, slow-growing, long branched, durable, and sweet-smelling trees. They are, by themselves, a good comparison to a Christian.
Smith's Bible Dictionary, written well over a hundred years ago, mentions a specimen living on Mount Lebanon that was 70 feet tall, 63 feet in circumference, and thought to be 2,000 years old! One writer said that the roots of these cedars could go as far down into the ground as the tree was tall—a foundation not easily destroyed. Nevertheless, these mammoth trees start as little seedlings, easily plucked up or eaten by grazing animals. If they survive long enough to gain some size, then, through the years they endure storms, drought, and countless environmental concerns. Each year, pushing their roots deeper and deeper into the soil, they build strength, constantly gaining a more solid footing. Such should occur in a Christian's life.
Beautiful and Sweet-Smelling
God continues in Hosea 14:6, "His branches shall spread; his beauty shall be like an olive tree, and his fragrance like Lebanon." A tree with a trunk 63 feet around and 70 feet tall could have branches that extend well over 100 feet side to side. What a great shade tree! In its shadow, one would be cool in the summer and protected from wind and rain in winter.
At this point, the comparison switches again. God says Israel will be beautiful as the olive tree. It is not that the cedar is an ugly tree, far from it. However, unlike the North American cedar tree, which is upright and narrow, the cedar of Lebanon is more sprawling, giving it a rangy appearance. The Bible often uses the olive tree, however, as a symbol of peace, prosperity, and beauty. It, too, is an evergreen, and in the same way, the Christian walk is not a part-time endeavor.
The olive tree is fruit bearing, while the cedar is not. Many professing Christians of this world talk a lot, but they produce little, if any, real fruit. They will tell you how good they are, how much they give to their church, how much they help the poor and downtrodden—then they will lie, cheat, and bury their neighbor in business!
Matthew 7:15-20 warns us of false prophets, saying that we will know the good from the bad by their fruits. This is true, not just of ministers, but of all people. In our walk through life, we will produce good fruit as we grow in God's ways and overcome. If we do not, Matthew 7:19 says we will be cast into the fire—the opposite result of being there.
Next, God says that Israel's fragrance will be "like Lebanon." Hosea 14:7 also says, "Their scent shall be like the wine of Lebanon." By some accounts, the scent of the olive tree is not so good, so the symbolism switches back to the cedar tree, as well as to the frankincense tree and the many other trees and plants that made the mountains of Lebanon smell so wonderful.
Revelation 5:8 describes the prayers of the saints as incense, and the church is called a garden of spices in Song of Songs 4:12, 14. Likewise, our spiritual sacrifices carry a sweet aroma to God (Genesis 8:21). When we live a life of obedience to God, as we strive to do now, and when Israel will do so in God's Kingdom, it pleases God as a beautiful perfume is pleasing.
The first part of Hosea 14:7 reads, "Those who dwell under his shadow shall return; they shall be revived like grain, and grow like the vine." "His shadow" might refer to God, but "his branches," "his beauty," and "his fragrance" (verse 6), refer to Israel, so "his shadow" must also. The whole phrase, "dwell under his shadow," denotes protection and reviving, restoration under shelter from adversity. Everyone has sought relief from the harsh rays of the sun in the shade of a tree, just as most have run under the spreading branches of a tree to escape a sudden shower. So will the nation of Israel be a refuge in that time, a fellowship of restoration under the blessings of God.
Those who live within that refuge "shall return"; they will grow again and again like a perennial plant. A lesson for us is that the shadow cast by the church, the spiritual "Israel of God," provides protection and growth. Over the centuries, God has called many into His church, but unfortunately, a great many did not stay. When the sun slipped behind a cloud or when the storm abated, many left the safety of the shadow. Some, however, choose to dwell there, never again leaving the spiritual safety of God's church.
It is these who "shall be revived like grain" and "grow like the vine." Grain, when it is sown, first dies and then revives (I Corinthians 15:35-44), a wonderful analogy of the resurrection of both the firstfruits and those of the White Throne Judgment. These revived ones will "grow like the vine," that is, produce fruit that is pleasing and glorifying to God (John 15:1-8).
Who Is Wise?
In these verses, five principles have become clear:
1. God gives us His Holy Spirit (the dew) to open our minds, and we use it for growing into productive Christians (like a lily).
2. After an initial burst of growth, we settle into a slower, but steady progress (like a cedar putting down roots).
3. We are to be evergreen (like both the cedar and the olive tree), not relaxing our diligent growth for a moment. Our growth is evident in our fruit (olive trees produce olives).
4. We are to live a life of obedience, and this ascends to God like sweet-smelling incense (fragrant as Lebanon).
5. God has given us a place of refuge (shadow), where we have protection and opportunity to grow. Leaving the church is not an option.
Hosea 14:8 says, "Ephraim shall say 'What have I to do anymore with idols?'" and God answers, "I have heard and observed him. I am like a green cypress tree; your fruit is found in Me." Ephraim, symbolic of Israel and all mankind, will see the benefits of following God's way and renounce all idols. These are not idols made of stone or wood but idols of the heart. God will take notice of their repentance and reveal Himself to them—in the metaphor, as a fellow evergreen tree, the cypress or fir. As Israel is a refuge for its people, God will protect and care for Israel. He is the Source of its growth and prosperity.
Verse 9 asks, "Who is wise? Let him understand these things. Who is prudent? Let him know them. For the ways of the Lord are right; the righteous walk in them, but transgressors stumble in them." The wise are those who understand the truth through the sacrifice of Christ and the mercy of God's calling. The prudent make sensible and correct decisions.
There are only two ways to go, Hosea asserts. One can follow "the ways of the Lord" or walk against them. As Peter says, Christ is a foundation stone to some, and a stone of stumbling and rock of offense to others (I Peter 2:6-8). To use another metaphor, the same sun that softens wax hardens clay. Will we be wise and prudent to choose correctly? Through Hosea 14, we recognize our charge: to "seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness" so that we might be there.