I call upon You, Lord, God of Abraham and God of Isaac and God of Jacob and Israel, You who are the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God who, through the abundance of your mercy, was well-pleased towards us so that we may know You, who made heaven and earth, who rules over all, You who are the one and the true God, above whom there is no other God; You who, by our Lord Jesus Christ gave us the gift of the Holy Spirit, give to every one who reads this writing to know You, that You alone are God, to be strengthened in You, and to avoid every heretical and godless and impious teaching.

St Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies 3:6:4

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Examples from the Lives of Ezra and Nehemiah

Lesson # 1—Ezra, Studied and Approved!

Text: Ezra 7:10, 25—“For Ezra had prepared his heart to seek the law of the LORD, and to do it, and to teach in Israel statutes and judgments...And thou, Ezra, after the wisdom of thy God, that is in thine hand, set magistrates and judges, which may judge all the people that are beyond the river, all such as know the laws of thy God; and teach ye them that know them not.”

Lesson Learned: As these two books reveal, the Babylonian captivity proved to result in further apostasy for much of the priestly class in Israel. This was not the case with Ezra! Surly, no other man of this time in Israel’s history was as critical to the nation’s reform as Ezra (Nehemiah is a close second!). Because of Ezra’s determined, steadfast love for the word of Yahweh, in spite of the national circumstances, when Yahweh saw fit to bring about his people’s second Exodus he had a man for the job.

These verses teach us that every hour spent immersing oneself in God’s word is not time misspent. Certainly Ezra felt times of discouragement during his study. His people were in exile, as a priest he had no Temple and his personal piety must have met the hard resistance of the current national swim of idolatry. However, God would redeem every minute Ezra spent in his perusal.

For Ezra, the word of God was not merely an academic enterprise alone; his study was coupled with action—“his heart to seek the law of the LORD, and to DO it.” No doubt this holy determination was met with persecution, not only from the pagans, but also his own apostate brethren. Nevertheless, it also brought “the hand of the LORD his God on him” (7:6) as well. Thus, when Yahweh, in his perfect timing, was ready to move on behalf of his people he had his man—ready in Word and deed—Ezra.

This text, above all others in these two books, should encourage those of us who spend hours in study. While there are the obvious and continual personal blessings which flow from our work, there is coming a day when God will meet our devotion with something far bigger than we may have ever expected! (Also see: Nehemiah 8).

“The heart of the righteous studieth to answer...” (Prov 15:28a).

Lesson # 2—A Man of Honest Faith

Text: Ezra 8:21—23—“Then I proclaimed a fast there, at the river of Ahava, that we might afflict ourselves before our God, to seek of him a right way for us, and for our little ones, and for all our substance. For I was ashamed to require of the king a band of soldiers and horsemen to help us against the enemy in the way: because we had spoken unto the king, saying, The hand of our God is upon all them for good that seek him; but his power and his wrath is against all them that forsake him. So we fasted and besought our God for this: and he was intreated of us.”

Lesson Learned: Imagine walking though the most destitute housing project of NYC dragging a wagon stacked full of bundles of $100 bills, and on the back of the wagon is a bumper sticker expressing your vulnerability: “IM4GUNCONTROL.” What would be the odds of you making it safely to your suburban home on the other side town? About the same chances that Ezra and his entourage had to make it through the volatile desert between them and Jerusalem!

Granted, my analogy shares only one commonality with Ezra—the risk involved. And of course God would never call someone to such a superfluous task as I describe above; however, many of us are or will be called to ministries or circumstances that share a similar level of risk.

In these verses Ezra’s faith is at a fork. As the leader it would not have been hard for Ezra to have compromised his faith in Yahweh’s providence and entreat the king for military protection, which he no doubt would have lent to the cause. The lesson learned here is that when one is aligned with accomplishing God’s will there will inevitably be reason to “fast and beseech God for” whatever is required of us to do our part. It is also important to remember that our faith may be bold at times and wane at others; however, it is Jesus alone, the Object of our faith that will bring the thing to pass!

Lesson # 3—A Man that Took God at His Word

Text: Nehemiah 1:8—11—“Remember, I beseech thee, the word that thou commandedst thy servant Moses, saying, If ye transgress, I will scatter you abroad among the nations: But if ye turn unto me, and keep my commandments, and do them; though there were of you cast out unto the uttermost part of the heaven, yet will I gather them from thence, and will bring them unto the place that I have chosen to set my name there. Now these are thy servants and thy people, whom thou hast redeemed by thy great power, and by thy strong hand. O Lord, I beseech thee, let now thine ear be attentive to the prayer of thy servant, and to the prayer of thy servants, who desire to fear thy name: and prosper, I pray thee, thy servant this day, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man.”

Lesson Learned: In the verses that precede the quoted text is the record of Nehemiah learning that Jerusalem, the city of God, lies in ruin. Having mourned many days, Nehemiah then turns his hearts cry to Yahweh. At this point it would have been tempting for Nehemiah to direct Yahweh’s attention to his pious desire to see the city restored. Yet, Nehemiah knew that the cities destruction was not the result of a lack of civil duty in the heart of the people, but caused by his and all of Israel’s sins against Yahweh and the covenantal obligations between he and them. Rightly then, Nehemiah begins his request with heartfelt confession of sin; personal, as well as national. Only after this point in the prayer can Nehemiah ask for mercy—“Lord God, save us in spite of ourselves!”

It is from this humble posture alone that a child of God may appeal to the promises of God’s word for salvation; whether they are physical or spiritual in nature. Nehemiah asks God to remember his past covenantal promise (v. 8) to “gather his people,” on the condition that they would turn to him again. He also reminds God of his past acts of redemption (v.10) when Yahweh redeemed this people for himself. These are the basis for the “grant of mercy” (v.11).

As Christians we find it easy to overlooking our own breeches of the covenant we have entered into with Christ, and begin to take his grace for granted. A successful ministry, raising godly children, a fruitful witness or a strong devotion life can become smoke screens for our many other failings. From this point it is easy to point to our past successes and kingdom work as meritorious, and not recognize them for what they are: Christ crowning his own graces.

We are in no better position than Nehemiah to seek God’s blessing on any venture. Like Nehemiah, we too must begin with humble confession of our absolute unworthiness, point to the kept promises of God in the Gospel, and continually look back to the Great Exodus bought us on the cross by Christ before ever taking a step forward. When we recognize it all as grace, God will be quick to crown it with more!

“And from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (Jn 1:16 ESV).

Lesson # 4—An Uncompromising Leader

Text: Nehemiah 13:23—27—“In those days also saw I Jews that had married wives of Ashdod, of Ammon, and of Moab: And their children spake half in the speech of Ashdod, and could not speak in the Jews' languae, but according to the language of each people. And I contended with them, and cursed them, and smote certain of them, and plucked off their hair, and made them swear by God, saying, Ye shall not give your daughters unto their sons, nor take their daughters unto your sons, or for yourselves. Did not Solomon king of Israel sin by these things? yet among many nations was there no king like him, who was beloved of his God, and God made him king over all Israel: nevertheless even him did outlandish women cause to sin. Shall we then hearken unto you to do all this great evil, to transgress against our God in marrying strange wives?”

Lesson Learned: It is not Nehemiah’s methodology of church discipline I wish to promote here, but his demand for the people of God to maintain their antithesis against the world. Nehemiah directs the Israelite’s attention back to the cause of Solomon’s (and consequently Israel’s) fall; namely marrying those outside the covenant community. Nehemiah knew that this situation would ultimately lead Israel into transgression and finally back into captivity.

Again, we can never exemplify Nehemiah’s physical corrections, yet his desire for keeping the command of God for the people of God to remain separate from the pagans that surround them is as valuable for the Church today as it was for Israel then.

It would have been quite easy for Nehemiah to become so engrossed in the success of the building campaign, the Jerusalem filling with people again, the reinstitution of the priesthood and all the other “growth” that was occurring to cause him to begin to relax certain “doctrinal issues” and allow for things like the intermarriage of the Jews with the surrounding pagans. However, Nehemiah was convicted that all the growth and success happening with the city would come to ruin in a moment if such commands were compromised. As seen above, he knew that it was these type of sins that put the people in captivity, and to allow it now would put them right back in it again.

We would do well to learn from Nehemiah to major in the majors and pursue continual reform in areas of doctrinal laxity. The surest way to grow the Church would be to relax the very doctrines that make our faith so distinct; and sadly this is often done today. To take the focus off of the pure and precious fundamentals of the glorious Gospel is a sure fire way to grow a church that is a mile wide and a half inch deep, but this cannot be the Church that Christ is building.

Have a band. Who cares what color the carpet is! Clap, don’t clap, but literally, for Christ’s sake, preach the pure Gospel with all its demands and warnings and the promises too. That is the kind of Kingdom building God has always blessed!

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