God’s People in God’s Place under God’s Rule
The book of Ezra is no less than history, but it is also more than history. We can learn from it. When reading Old Testament narrative, we should always ask ourselves what we can learn from it today? We should ask what was the purpose of the temple to the Israelites and what does rebuilding it have to do with us today? Should I, as the wife of the church planter, read about the rebuilding of the temple in Ezra and draw a direct correlation to building our church building? Are Ezra and Nehemiah lessons for church planters and pastors on how to deal with rulers, how to rally their church members to work hard, how to find financial resources from unexpected places, and how to deal with opposition inside and out the church?
Let me begin to answer these questions by saying that the Bible tells one continuous story. It is a redemptive story of a good God who created a good world and put in it good people. These people were to live with God in His place and under His good authority, but instead they rebelled against him. But instead of leaving them in their rebellion against Him, He mercifully provides a way of salvation for them. This is the story written by God and played out in human history. As we read the Bible, it is extremely important that we know where we are in redemptive history at that moment. For example, if you were to read old covenant instructions about how to properly conduct animal sacrifices and think you will obtain forgiveness of your sins from God for carefully obeying those passages, you are in big trouble. With more than just animal rights activists! Or, if you read the instructions for the Israelites for the war they wage in Canaan (remember God tells them to kill everything) and apply that to the church today, you will not only do something absolutely terrible but also probably create an international disaster.
If you read Ezra & Nehemiah merely as a guide for how to build a church building, you are missing the point entirely. (Note: I am not saying you cannot learn helpful lessons about doing so; but I am saying you will be missing the primary point of the text.) Remember the Bible is telling one story and it is important to always know when studying scripture who are God’s people, where is God’s dwelling place, and how are His people under his rule? Throughout the Bible you see the constant that God has a particular people who are his own, although where they dwell and the circumstances regarding how God dwells with them changes. And these changes are important to know when you are reading the Bible, so that you don’t misinterpret or misapply a part of the text.
So let’s think about the Biblical theme of:
God’s people, God’s place, under God’s rule.
Let’s start at the beginning.
In the beginning, God’s people were Adam & Eve. God’s place was the Garden of Eden. He dwelt among them in harmony, even walking with them in the garden. And they were under his rule. They were to live in perfect happiness in submission to him obeying him and enjoying him. BUT, they rebelled and God forces them to leave the garden. These rebellious people keep on sinning and eventually God destroys almost all of them through a massive flood. Then God’s people was really just God’s person - Noah (the only righteous man on earth) & his immediate family. God’s place was on the ark, a place of salvation for Noah and his family. Here God spoke directly to Noah. And they lived under God’s rule. God made a covenant with Noah that he would never again destroy the earth by a flood.
BUT, they almost immediately start sinning again against God, even building the tower of Babel in what was apparently a pretty impressive attempt to build a structure tall enough to reach the heavens (as an aside, it seems that mankind is still fascinated by trying to gain glory by building the tallest building in the world...). At Babel, God separates the people, and yet keeps a remnant for himself. And then next on the scene is Abram. God’s people is promised to Abram and his descendants. God is calling a new people to himself, a specific lineage of people who He will enter into a covenant with. God’s place is also new. He is calling Abram to leave Ur and go to a new land, a land he promised to Abraham. And there they would live under his rule, where God promised to bless all the nations of the world through Abraham and his obedience to God.
BUT, as this specially called out people grow in number in Egypt, they become a perceived threat to the Egyptian people. And to keep them subdued, Pharaoh enslaves them. They live in slavery for hundreds of years, and yet they cry out to God to save them. So he sends a baby. This one is named Moses. God’s people were a distinct group of Israelites, living as slaves in Egypt, and God called them to leave Egypt for the land that was promised to them through Abraham. God’s place was the Promised Land they left Egypt for, but because of their sin they spent a generation wandering in the wilderness. And yet God’s spirit dwelt with them inhabited in the tabernacle, their a portable temple and the way in which God dwelled among his people at this time. They were also to live under his rule by following the law that was given to Moses in the form of the 10 commandments.
A couple of speed bumps and a few roundabouts later, under a different ruler, they finally enter the Promised Land. Here we see God’s people, a distinct group to be governed by the law (Torah), forbidden from intermarrying. They finally reached God’s place, the promised land. Initially God dwells in the tabernacle but eventually the temple is built. The people were supposed to live under God's rule as revealed in the law. Access to God was mediated by the priests and eventually the people succeed in getting a human king.
The first temple was built (not by David but instead God gave the task to Solomon). The purpose of the temple was to replaced the tabernacle, the portable dwelling place of God’s presence. It was also a place where God dwelt with his people and was the place where people made sacrifices to God to seek forgiveness of their sins. In the particular place where God dwelt - the Holy of Holies - only one man was allowed to enter in, and that privilege only happened one time each year. BUT, God’s people disobeyed him and broke the covenant, and so he punished them sending them into exile under the Babylonians.
This is a familiar story, right? God gives his people a place to live, they sin, and they get sent out. The real tragedy of exile is that God’s people are no longer in God’s place under the blessing of God’s rule. Instead, they are among a foreign people in a foreign land under a foreign ruler who knows nothing of the Torah or Yahweh. But God (aren’t those the greatest words in the Bible - “but God”) remains faithful to his covenant promises and preserves his people and his plan. During this time, God raised up prophets to speak to his people and eventually Jeremiah foretells that God’s people will return from exile. And, God accomplishes his purposes through a foreign pagan king (Can you imagine that God would use a ruler who does not know him who rules over people who do not know him to accomplish his good purposes for his people? Does that sound familiar as we plant this church in Ras Al Khaimah on land granted to us by the Sheikh?) God graciously allowed his people to enter back in to their land under Cyrus who grants them permission to rebuild their temple.
The second temple is rebuilt by Zerrubabel, the governor of Judah. This temple was not just a convenient building for ladies’ torah studies. This building was the lone place on the face of the planet where God Himself dwelt. This was as close to Eden as you could get, but it certainly was not Eden. In Eden God’s people had free access to him. In the time of the temple, only one person could approach the most Holy room and that on one day of the year--the Day of Atonement--to offer atoning sacrifices for the sin of all the people.
So far I have given you Old Testament background and purpose of the temple. With that in mind, I want to summarize Ezra for you before we move on to some practical application points. Our understanding Ezra in light of the Old Testament will serve us well as we study the book of Nehemiah in the coming weeks. We believe that Ezra and Nehemiah were originally likely one book together. Ezra begins with King Cyrus’s decree to let the exiles in Babylon return to their land to reconstruct the temple. King Cyrus was not a follower of Yaweh, but he did act in accordance with what was prophesied in Jeremiah that after 70 years of exile, God would bring his people back to the place he had for them. God used Cyrus to fulfill his purposes. Three similarly structured episodes follow: Zerubbabel leads a team to return and rebuilt the temple in chapters 1-6; Ezra leads the people to rebuild their social and religious community in chapters 7-10, and in the book of Nehemiah, our main character leads the people to rebuild the walls. In each of the 3 of these episodes, there is opposition. Sometimes the king starts the work, and sometimes the king stops the work. But - spoiler alert - God’s intentions prevail every time.
Now, let's apply some of this history to our lives.
- God punishes sin. For God’s people to be in God’s place, they must maintain covenant fidelity. They must be obedient to God. God cannot dwell in the midst of a sinful people. That’s why Adam & Eve had to leave the Garden of Eden. And that’s why our characters in our lesson this week have been in exile. In bringing them back to the Promised land after the exile, there is a fresh start. God will once again dwell with his people, the remnant. In Ezra, the people are asking themselves if this time - will this be permanent? Is this the restoration of God’s people back to Eden? God takes sin seriously. He either must punish it in us, or he must punish it in a sin-bearer. He sent the Israelites into exile for their sins. He sent Jesus into exile from Himself for us and our sins. Spend a little bit of time this week praising a God who does not punish us as our sins deserve. Let your heart be stirred by a God who sacrificed Himself to bear the wrath for your and my sins. Think about the gravity of your sins and praise God for his forgiveness of even our most wretched and repetitive sins.
- God dwells with and loves his people. During this phase of redemptive history we are studying in Ezra, God is so committed to his covenant people that he brings them out of exile. Again he gives his spirit for the work of rebuilding the temple so that he can dwell with his people. Do you see this? It is His plan, He initiates the work, He directs the hearts of men - and in the end, God himself is the gift to his people. He gives Himself to His people as the end of it all. â€¨â€¨Now with that in mind, let your ears be shocked along with those who were reading Paul when he says to the early church that YOU are the temple. (1 Cor 3:6) “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” This would not have made sense in Ezra’s time, where the temple was the singular place of God’s dwelling. But everything changed with Christ in a dramatic way. The Spirit dwelled in the Most Holy Place then, but now he dwells in and with his people. He loves His people. Jesus’s sacrifice was made once for all, so there is now no longer any need for a mediator. There is no need for animal sacrifices or for a Day of Atonement. This week marvel at the work on the cross, friends. The curtain was torn in 2 so that we could now have direct access to God. He dwells directly with his beloved people - you and me!
- God is sovereign and works out his purposes, even through powerful rulers. Consider for a moment that if you read history from the Persian perspective, this little decree made by Cyrus to rebuild the temple would have been an insignificant fact of history. It was probably even totally insignificant at the time to the king of Persia, but God was using him to accomplish the purposes of the King of Kings. God will use all things together for good for his people and to accomplish his purposes. We see this in Ezra 1:1. “Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfill the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah, the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he sent a proclamation throughout all his kingdom, and also put it in writing....” We see it again when Darius doesn’t just allow the Israelites to resume building the temple, but actually orders that they be paid from the royal treasury and given everything that they need. We see this again when Artaxerxes the king of Persia issues a decree that any of the Jewish people who want to return with Ezra to Jerusalem may do so and that any of the king’s treasury needed to complete the tasks is available. God directs the hearts of kings. Be encouraged by that. The Lord has put it in the heart of a ruler of this land to do something better than he knows as well.â€¨â€¨Don’t despise the day of small things. Zechariah 4:10 says, “For whoever has despised the day of small things shall rejoice, and shall see the plumb line in the hand of Zerubbabel.” God’s work may start in small and insignificant ways, but reach glorious conclusions. Our place in redemptive history may not be to see the temple built. But we are called to be faithful with what God has given us. God is sovereign over the hearts of kings; our responsibility is merely faithfulness to the tasks he has given us.â€¨â€¨I also want to note that even though God is sovereign and God loves his people, it does not mean the plans to rebuild the temple happen without some discouragement along the way. There was no small amount of discouragement and thwarted plans as Zerrubabel sought to rebuild the temple and Ezra sought to call the people to a spiritual renewal, and yet God was still in the midst of it. Just because God does not seem to be giving prosperity and fruit in your work in this season, does not mean God is not honored and sovereign over it all.
I want to conclude with Haggai. Zerrubabel and his people are discouraged and are despising the day of small things. The Lord sends Haggai to encourage them. "Who is left among you who saw this house in its former glory? How do you see it now? Is it not as nothing in your eyes? Yet now be strong, O Zerrubabel. Be strong, O Joshua. Be strong, all you people of the land. Work, for I am with you according to the covenant that I made with you when you came out of Egypt. My Spirit remains in your midst. Fear not. Yet once more, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land. And I will shake all nations, so that the treasures of all nations shall come in, and I will fill this house with glory. The silver is mine and the gold is mine. The latter glory of this house shall be greater than the former." (Haggai 2:3-9)
Do you hear what he is saying? All the nations shall come in to this new temple. That’s you! If you are a gentile, God is making a promise that you will come and fill this new future temple with glory. And that so will all the nations. And later Jesus announced himself one better than the temple. When he calls himself the temple, he says he is the place where God meets with his people. Shocking! These people knew the significance of the temple, and Jesus was now claiming in front of them that HE is the temple. That is a pretty bold claim.
So now we find ourselves this new place in redemptive history. God’s people are now you and me, and all who would repent and trust in Jesus. God’s place is now in Christ. And those under God’s rule live in repentance of their sins and belief in the Lord Jesus, the new temple. But that is not the final chapter. There is a day coming when there is no need for a temple because the whole earth will be filled with the glory of the Lord (Hab 2:14.), and we will have uninhibited access and communion with God. No longer will the Garden of Eden be confined to one small corner of the world; the entire cosmos will be Edenic, as God’s people live in God’s place under God’s rule.
Revelation 21:22-27: “I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God, the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need for sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, and its gates will never be shut by day, and there will be no night there. They will bring into it the glory and honor of the nations. But nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lambs Book of Life."
We in the church are part of God's history, and we have this to look forward to: living in God's glorious place under God's glorious rule forever!