Ezra 3:1–4:24, 1 John 3:11–18, Psalm 106:16–29
The exiles returned home from Babylon. They sang praises and gave thanks to the Lord, shouting in joy because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid, but not all of them. “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.” They remembered the glory of Solomon’s temple; this one was not so grand. (Ezra 3:11–13)
As the work was being done, their enemies tried to stop them. Their first ploy was the offer to “help out” but the heads in Israel said to them, “You have nothing to do with us in building a house to our God; but we alone will build to the Lord, the God of Israel, as King Cyrus the king of Persia has commanded us.” (Ezra 4:3)
In past weeks, I’ve compared the work of the Lord in the OT with His work in the NT. What happened physically in the past often points ahead to what will happen spiritually. For instance, deliverance from bondage in Egypt depicts how Christ comes to deliver His people from bondage to sin. Rebuilding the temple is like rebuilding a life after pulling away from God and wanting to come back to Him.
Yesterday we attended the funeral of a cousin. She was extremely well-liked in the community. Hundreds attended. I arrived with that sense of loss for a relative that I didn’t know very well. I left with a greater grief. Jesus Christ who gives eternal life was not mentioned. Instead, my cousin was highly praised. Another told me that she had wanted “nothing religious” at her funeral. She got her wish.
In Ezra, religious practices were halted while God’s people were in exile. When set free, they began to rebuild their spiritual lives by rebuilding their temple and their city. Today, the temple is the bodies of God’s people and we are continually at work building, rebuilding, and maintaining the kingdom of God as our lives are entrusted to the saving power of Jesus Christ. One of our biggest enemies is self-effort. Jesus said that apart from Him, we can do nothing. Relying on Him is vital to our spiritual health, so when the enemy comes along to thwart our efforts, it is often in the form of me thinking to myself that I have to help God do it.
Of course I must obey Him, but that is not the same as taking over, getting in His way, and having the subtle but devastating desire to do the work so I will get the glory, not thinking that when I do the work, His work ceases. This is what the enemies of the returned exiles were doing. They wanted to “help” but their actual purpose was to stop God from working.
This is what saddened me at the funeral. My departed cousin did all the work. God was not part of her life, so instead of bringing glory to Him with her ‘good life’ she got it all. Great pride flowed throughout the service without any praise to the Lord God who is the source of real goodness. The Bible says that, “We are all like an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags; We all fade as a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, Have taken us away.” (Isaiah 64:6)
Another ploy of the enemy is discouragement. Obeying God is a blessing, but it is not always easy. “Then the people of the land discouraged the people of Judah and made them afraid to build and bribed counselors against them to frustrate their purpose . . . .”. (Ezra 4:4–5) Even “a life well-lived” as was said of my cousin can be a discouragement. Many Christians obey God and are persecuted instead of appreciated, looked down on instead of exalted. While we want Christ to be glorified as the One who gives us strength, we want that strength recognized not ridiculed.
A third ploy is the accusation from the enemy that we have no right to enjoy the salvation of God or His work in our lives. Those ancient believers were accused trying to undermine the king: “Therefore make a decree that these men be made to cease, and that this city be not rebuilt, until a decree is made by me. And take care not to be slack in this matter. Why should damage grow to the hurt of the king?” (Ezra 4:21–22)
The world believes that God wants to destroy all fun and put people in bondage to rules. Nothing could be farther from the truth, yet for many this is enough to put a stop to any spiritual progress. It is also enough to put hatred in the hearts of those for whom faith in Christ is a threat. They assume that Christians are their enemies.
God tells me, “We should not be like Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous. Do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you.” (1 John 3:12–13)
Most of the time people are too ‘nice’ to act out their attitude toward Christians, particularly at funerals. If we speak up, we are given toleration or are misunderstood. If we play ‘nice’ and fail to speak up with God’s answer to sin, self-effort, and death, we send people home thinking that having ‘a life well-lived’ is the way to eternal glory, and any talk about Jesus is not important.
The psalmist reminds me of what I must keep doing: “They forgot God, their Savior, who had done great things in Egypt, wondrous works in the land of Ham, and awesome deeds by the Red Sea. Therefore he said he would destroy them — had not Moses, his chosen one, stood in the breach before him, to turn away his wrath from destroying them.” (Psalm 106:21–23)
God charges me to never to forget Christ nor others who have forgotten Him. I am to intercede for all who need to hear about and come to faith in Jesus Christ. He also charges me to love these people, not look down my nose at their lack of faith. How could I forget that without Him, I would be relying on living a good life too, instead of relying on my Savior.