Many Jews from distant lands had come up to Jerusalem for the Pilgrim Festival. Their custom was to celebrate Passover and stay on until after Shavuot (the Feast of Weeks, or Pentecost). Those fortunate enough to afford the pilgrimage knew what to expect. They would fulfill their religious responsibilities at the Temple. Then they would enjoy the camaraderie of friends and relatives, and hear about current events in the nation's capital. But at this Passover season many found the news unique and somewhat disturbing.
Jerusalem was abuzz about the Roman execution of a rabbi from Nazareth. He was purported to have blasphemed and committed treason against his fellow Jews. In mockery his executioners had nailed a placard over him that read, Jesus of Nazareth, King of theJews." The sign was intended not merely to insult the victim, but to humiliate the entire Jewish populace by presenting a "malefactor" as the ruler of Israel.
Indeed, it did make the Jewish leaders squirm, and the Romans had congratulated themselves on making a clever joke. But surprise—the joke had backfired. In their attempt to mock the Holy One of Israel, the Roman soldiers had unwittingly made a most profound statement. Then came another surprise—the carefully guarded tomb was empty, and rumor had it that this King of the Jews had risen from the dead!
Some said no, his body was stolen by his disciples, who merely said he had risen. His followers, who had seen him alive, knew better. Yet at first even they had been incredulous. Those who had lived with the Master, seen his miracles and watched others shake their heads in amazement at his wisdom were themselves amazed by the empty tomb. They should not have been surprised. Jesus had told them that he would rise from the dead. Yet when it actually happened, the disciples were amazed.
Surely the pilgrims from many lands who had come to celebrate the Jewish feasts had heard the rumors of the Resurrection as well as the reports of the Crucifixion. But, absorbed in their religious duties and the excitement of being in Jerusalem, they probably had thought little more about it.
Then on Shavuot, when the firstfruits were to be ceremonially presented in the Temple, an ecstatic band of worshipers burst into the streets. Their zeal surprised the pilgrim crowds—and their message made those visitors think again about the rabbi from Nazareth.
About a hundred and twenty disciples (Acts 1:15) were all talking at the same time. At first it seemed that the members of that animated band were drunk or talking gibberish, but as the pilgrims drew closer they recognized the dialects of their native lands. Each person heard the wonderful works of God described in his or her own tongue.
Through miraculous means God had circumvented the judgment of Babel, so that which the crowd had perceived as meaningless prattle took on amazing clarity and spiritual significance as each pilgrim heard about Jesus the Messiah. The message itself was as amazing as the means of its delivery. After the surprise came a response, and that day three thousand souls were added to the community of faith.
Throughout Bible history the faithful seem to have responded to the works of God with surprise. Sarah was surprised to conceive Isaac in her old age. The young Samuel was jolted to wakefulness by God's voice in the middle of the night. Moses was amazed to find the burning bush in the desert; and he probably leaped back in shocked surprise when the Lord turned his staff into a writhing, hissing serpent.
Today God is still surprising people!
Until recent years everyone, except a faithful few who studied the Bible, thought it impossible for Jews to become Christians. But surprise! Here we are—Jews for Jesus! And for the past two decades we have been here, there and everywhere, out on the streets, in public places, at home and abroad, telling the wonderful works of God to all who will listen. As Jews who believe in Jesus, we offer ourselves as tokens of God's amazing grace and as evidence that the God of the Bible exists and keeps his word.
God still has surprises for every believer. We are all heirs to the wonderful surprises contained in his Word. I have read some portion of the Bible nearly every day since I became a Christian in 1953, and I am still amazed as I study it. I always find something new to be learned, and some wonderful work of God I had not noticed before.
Another surprise seems to be answered prayer. If we had perfect faith we would not be surprised, but somehow in our humanity we often are surprised when God answers us. Even the Apostles were not beyond surprise at answered prayer. Acts 12:1-4 recounts Herod Agrippa's execution of James, the brother of John, and the subsequent arrest and imprisonment of Peter. Peter was kept in a high-security situation, chained between two soldiers.
Acts 12:5 records that "prayer was made without ceasing" for Peter. We may not fully comprehend what "prayer without ceasing" means, but the phrase suggests the greatest possible intensity. Yet according to verse 16, all those who had been praying so intensely for Peter were "astonished" to see him after his miraculous escape. Somehow when we pray in faith believing, no matter how much we believe, the answers to our prayers still seem to surprise us.
In this Jews for Jesus ministry we have enjoyed quite a bit of that kind of happy astonishment. I cannot recount how many times in the normal course of events we have had reason to expect a disaster. Yet God in his sovereignty has surprised us with good things instead. He has answered our petitions. He has turned the enemy's stumbling blocks into stepping stones, and often that which seemed improbable—even impossible—has come to pass.
He is still surprising us as he leads us to stretch just a bit further, and again just a bit further. Just recently Jews for Jesus began reaching out to other countries. Before the end of this year we expect to have substantial works in England, France and Russia to complement the international outreach we have already established in Canada, South Africa and Argentina. We hope to continue going into the highways and byways to tell others of the wonderful works of God.
As we do that, I have no doubt that to many Jewish people it will come as a surprise, just as the news did on that first day of Pentecost. Jewish people are always surprised to find that the crucified Jesus is for them, too. We rejoice to be the bearers of that happy surprise as we sow gospel seed in many countries.
There is also the surprise of God's forgiveness. I am continually surprised by the amazing grace of God. How great is his forgiveness! We, his children, disappoint him time and again and often offend him. Yet our heavenly Father surprises us not only by forgiving us, but also by welcoming us back into his fellowship with a feast and a celebration to show his love. Our walk with God is always an adventure, not because of the perils of life, but because of the wonderful surprises he has for us as we continue in his way.
There is the surprise of the hidden future. The world situation looks rather dark and dreary these days. We have wars and rumors of wars, stories of destruction, of troop movements, of uprisings, of unrest, of drought and of ecological disasters. Even as I write, the past twenty-four hours have brought reports of major earthquakes in and around Turkey. The world is a mess; many of the bad guys seem to be winning, and as for Christians—well, are some of the more complacent merely "getting fat" before being thrown to the lions?
So everything seems terrible and about to get worse, but surprise—it's God! When wrong seems to prevail over right, when things look dark and dreary, when unbelievers shun us for being good and at the same time condemn us for falling short of perfection, God comes along and lifts that condemnation. He forgives, consoles and showers us with joy and blessing.
Showers of blessing can come in any season. And the best of all surprises is yet to come. Someday we will rejoice in God's presence forever, and we can only imagine what that will entail. First Corinthians 2:9 tells us, "…Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him." I think that when we get to heaven, we are all going to be more amazed by its total "otherness" than we ever could have expected with our finite minds. I am looking forward with great anticipation to that ultimate surprise! Aren't you?