“Thus the Lord said to me: ‘Go and get yourself a linen sash, and put it around your waist, but do not put it in water’” (Jeremiah 13:1, NKJV).
I am often amazed at how many modern Christians seem to consider their religion to be non-demanding. This is often reflected in the denial that God would require any inconvenience or excessive demands from them. They also assume that God wants them to have a prosperous and enjoyable life, whatever may be required to make that happen.
Whenever I am confronted with such attitudes I almost unfailingly think of the lives of the prophets of Israel as related to us in the Old Testament. Jeremiah, often called “The Weeping Prophet,” is a particular example of God’s extreme requirements of those who would serve him.
In chapter 13 of the book bearing the prophet’s name a story begins with the simple request from God for the young prophet to purchase a new sash made of linen. Such a sash, used as a form of belt to secure a robe at the waist, would have been a relatively expensive item, since the cloth from which it was made was more costly that simple cotton or wool. Still, it was not of great cost and we would not expect that Jeremiah would have hesitated to obey.
Next, however, Jeremiah was told to take his belt to the Euphrates river and there to bury it in a hole in the ground (verses 3-4). Now the expense and trouble which the prophet must encounter begin to mount up. Not only was it a several day’s journey to the Euphrates, it was also into “enemy territory” occupied by Syria, Assyria, and Babylonia – all historic enemies of Israel. The Assyrian empire was in its last days and Babylonia was rising to threaten and eventually destroy it. For a Jew to travel alone in that region was risky.
Many days after Jeremiah had fulfilled this strange request, God sent him back to recover his buried sash (verses 6-7). Not surprisingly when he did the sash was “ruined, profitable for nothing.” Another hard trip was required with the same expenses and dangers already faced once before. And all to reclaim a piece of fabric which would be of no use to him.
At this point Jeremiah learns that his belt has been used by God as an allegory. It represented Israel, whom God would cause to be carried to the Euphrates river in only a few more years where their pride and sinful arrogance would be destroyed through 70 years of captivity (verses 9-11). Just as the linen sash was ruined by exposure to the dirt of the Euphrates valley, so would Israel’s idolatrous prosperity be taken from them, to be replaced with proper humility and faith in the one true God.
Couldn’t God have delivered his message in a much more convenient and less expensive and risky manner? Did Jeremiah have to buy something which he would never get any use from, and then make two difficult, costly, and dangerous journeys with it? Possibly, but the fact is that God sent his messages to Jeremiah for something like 40 years, in many forms and Israel ignored them all. Jeremiah was faithful to deliver God’s word, regardless of the difficulty and danger of so doing. And God never apologized.
At the very beginning of Jeremiah’s work as a prophet God had prepared him for a difficult and fruitless ministry:
“Therefore prepare yourself and arise, and speak to them all that I command you. Do not be dismayed before their faces, lest I dismay you before them. … They will fight against you, but they shall not prevail against you. For I am with you, says the Lord, to deliver you” (Jeremiah 1:17, 19).
In the New Testament Paul promised, “Yes, and all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution” (2 Timothy 3:12). How can we read the stories of the apostles and other Christian evangelists, not to mention the prophets and faithful from Old Testament times, observing their sacrifices, suffering, and extreme labors in God’s service, and still expect to avoid any real cost of our own discipleship?
Have we forgotten the words of Jesus?
“If anyone desires to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:24-25).
God has given us the most precious gift ever received by mankind – his own son (John 3:16). How can we refuse to give him our devotion and service?
So what is the true nature of the faith? Several contributors describe it in The Right Kind of Christianity.