Dear church,

Zechariah 5 is one of those chapters in the Bible that has some strange imagery. A huge, flag-like scroll flying through the sky? A basket with a woman sitting in it, carried by two angel-like figures flying like storks through the sky? Yes, this is strange!

But again, as with all these visionary texts, we must look for what God was intending to say to Israel as the returned exiles were working on rebuilding the temple. And we must look for how these truths about God might be speaking to us today.

The vision of the “flying scroll”  is interesting because of the scroll’s size. It was 20 cubits by 10 cubits in size. A cubit is about 18 inches, which means this scroll was about 30 feet long by 15 feet high. Basically, it was the size of a billboard. I get the impression the scroll was unrolled so that everyone could read it.

And the angel said God was sending out a curse across the land – probably the land of Israel – so that anyone who steals and anyone who swears falsely (that is, who bears false witness) would be “cleaned out.” This is a justice text. God’s justice is at work here.

The size of scroll might be important. It was big – 20 cubits by 10 cubits. That is the same size as the vestibule – or portico – for the original temple built by Solomon hundreds of years earlier.

In 1 Kings 6:3, we read, “The vestibule in front of the nave of the house was twenty cubits long, equal to the width of the house, and ten cubits deep in front of the house.” The portico of the temple likely was the place where justice was administered during the era of the first temple.

Perhaps the vision of the flying scroll marked for Zechariah and the people of Israel the return of the administration of justice by the priests. It was a new revival in the people’s adherence to the Word of God.

Meanwhile, the curse was interesting because it was personified. The curse would enter the house of the thief, and it would enter the house of the false witness. And it would remain in those homes and consume them.

The sins of theft and false witness appear in the Ten Commandments. Exodus 20:15 says, “You shall not steal.” And Exodus 20:16 says, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”

I get the sense that these two commandments of God – part of his covenant with them – were being broken by Israel. And God was calling his people to account. This was a warning. This was a call to repentance. How often were the people of Israel taking from others what did not belong to them? How often were the people of Israel being deceitful? How often were they lying?

I am not sure why these two commandments were highlighted by God on this flying scroll. But the curse against the Israelites who committed these sins was severe, and it was active. The curse would be “sent” out. It would “enter” homes. It would “remain” in those homes. And it would “consume” them.

I think we would prefer sometimes not to think about God’s justice or his righteous rules. We would prefer sometimes to turn a blind eye to sin or to think that, “Well, God doesn’t really mean it.” But we would be wrong to have this attitude. God is perfectly holy, and he expects perfect holiness from his children. God’s people are to be a holy nation.

The apostle Paul said this in Galatians 5:19-21: “Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.”

Paul said it is clear. You can’t enter the kingdom of God if you live in sin. God is a righteous judge who is supremely holy. There is a judgment that any sane person must fear.

And then Zechariah was shown a second, even more bizarre vision. It was the image of a basket that would have held an ephah – or about a half-bushel of grain. And a woman (it must have been a very small woman) was sitting in the basket. We know this because it seems the angel lifted the heavy leaden lid that was on the basket to let Zechariah peek inside. And then the angel shoved the woman back into the basket and slammed shut the lid. What a picture!

The angel didn’t want the woman to escape. A basket like that wouldn’t normally have had a leaden lid. The woman’s name? “Wickedness.” I get the impression this was a restless evil that was capable of doing much harm to the people of Israel.

And then a couple of women showed up, and the “wind was in their wings.” The word wind could mean “spirit” as well – even God’s “Spirit.” And those women who were borne along by the wind, or the Spirit, carried the basket and the “Wickedness” away. They took it back to “Shinar,” which is another name for Babylonia, where the Israelites had just come from. The women would put the “Wickedness” in a house – or maybe a temple? – in Babylonia.

What kind of wickedness could this be? This is a good question. The people of Israel at this time were struggling with intermarriages, something we know from our reading of the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. Perhaps this was the spirit of idolatry that so often was caused by the Israelites’ mingling with the people of the land. Idolatry caused the nation to stumble and ultimately be defeated.

The “Wickedness” also could have had to do with the trading of grain. Maybe they were cheating each other – using dishonest scales to weigh out an ephah of grain in baskets just like this one (Ezekiel 45:10).

Of course, the “Wickedness” here could just be a general wickedness – just an unjust and unholy social order.

The important thing, I suppose, is that it was carried away. This “wickedness” was bound – held captive in a basket with a leaden lid – and it was carried away, out of the land of Israel.

The land can become unholy, or unclean, by the deeds of the people who live in it. That’s what God had said. The Promised Land, before Joshua and the Israelites had arrived, was unclean because of the sinful works of the Canaanites. Leviticus 18:24-25 says, “Do not make yourselves unclean by any of these things, for by all these the nations I am driving out before you have become unclean, and the land became unclean, so that I punished its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants.”

And so God carried this “Wickedness” – whatever it was – away. Gone. Call it grace. And in reading this, I began to see what God has for me in this text.

In our lives before Christ, we had a problem. We had sinned. We had broken God’s law. Some of us had committed theft. Some of us had been false witnesses. Some of us had done worse than that.

And the blood of Jesus Christ – the sinless One – washed those sins away. We were forgiven. And now, we have this: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Our sins are forgiven. God’s justice was poured out on Jesus. He took the punishment for my sins. I am forgiven.

But that’s not the end of the story. God is faithful and just “to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Something else is going on there. It is the “double cure.” Our sins are forgiven, wiped away. We are justified. But we’re also cleansed from “all unrighteousness.” We are sanctified.

And so I started thinking about sanctification when I thought about that “Wickedness” in the basket with the leaden lid.

On our own, we are unrighteous. Inside of us is this tendency to sin. We want to sin, to do our own thing, to take control, to satisfy our desires, to grab the apple. That unrighteousness is simply part of who we are. It drives us.

That is, it drives us until Christ comes into our lives. That’s when the work of sanctification starts. We’re not just forgiven. No, we’re forgiven and then we’re given the Holy Spirit to begin the work of rooting out the “Wickedness” in our own lives. The disciple Peter, in 1 Peter 1:2, called Christians people who were elect “according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Christ.”

God doesn’t just forgive our sins. He begins to root sinfulness out of our lives by the sanctification of the Holy Spirit. He begins to carry it away. He forgives us, and then he begins to clean us up so that we don’t even want to sin.

The apostle Paul in Philippians 2:12-13 said, “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”

Sanctification is the work of God. We strive to walk with him. We constantly repent of our sins. We look for the flying scroll, and we decide which way we are going to go. But the actual work of rooting out wickedness from my life is done by God. He works in us, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. He carries both our sins and our sinful tendencies away.

It’s not that we’re perfect – because we are not. The forgiveness of our sins is instantaneous – the moment we say “yes” to Jesus. But the work of sanctification takes a lifetime. And we stumble along the way, and we say “no” sometimes to what God is doing in us. And we find ourselves needing to repent – again.

Remember that passage from Galatians that we looked at earlier – the works of the flesh that disqualify us from inheriting the kingdom of heaven? That passage, fleshed out, goes like this:

“But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.

“For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.

“But if you are led by the Spirt, you are not under the law.

“Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.

“If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit” (Galatians 5:16-15).

We need the Holy Spirit’s sanctification of our lives. Think today about what you would like to see sanctified in your own life. Take those things before God. Ask for his work in those areas – to carry them away in a basket with a leaden lid.


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